Kayla Carter is feeling confident about herself. And that’s a big deal.

It was different two years ago. That’s when Kayla, now 18, came to Lutheran Family Services of Virginia’s Starkey Station Minnick School, in Roanoke.

“She was an emotional wreck, extremely defiant, and, due to her lack of confidence, was bullied by her peers,” says Education Coordinator Kimberly Irvin.

Kayla blossomed, gradually, but steadily. She found a niche as “the organizer,” stocking shelves at the local VA canteen store, Irvin says, and she enjoys helping classmates with housework, cooking, cleaning, job skills, and school work.

“We have seen this emotionally frail young teenage girl blossom into a confident and capable young woman,” Irvin says.

Kayla took another big step forward in both ability and confidence when she became a cadet with Growth Through Opportunity (GTO), a program of the Roanoke Police Department.

“We’re really proud to be cadets,” she says. “We wear uniforms – we prove it!”

GTO pairs individuals with disabilities with first responders and others in the police, fire and sheriff’s departments to enhance job, life, and social skills, says Travis Akins, Roanoke’s crime prevention officer and founder of the program.

“Most importantly,” he says, “GTO is about building confidence.”

On a given day, Kayla and the other GTO cadets may be at a police, fire or sheriff’s building, washing and detailing cars and trucks, assisting with janitorial work, or helping court officials stuff subpoenas into envelopes, Akins says. And every GTO session ends with a 60-minute workout, which is how Kayla found out she loves to put on boxing gloves and give the heavy bag a few jabs and hooks.

“It’s different every single day,” Akins says, “but it’s always alongside uniformed personnel in a very positive atmosphere.”

‘We’ve been out in the community a lot,” says Kayla. “We’ve been working on our strategies and stuff. We do shredding, and we do filing papers. We do resumes and job applications.”

At least one of Kayla applications was strong enough to land her a job interview. She looks forward to being part of a workplace team someday, and she’s already thought about how to handle new workplace friendships.

“Make friends with them, talk and do your work,” she says. “But mostly, keep your mind on your work until you’re done. When you’re on a break, that’s the time to communicate with people.”

That attitude and perspective helps make Kayla one of GTO’s “shining stars,” says Akins.

“She comes here every single day with a very positive attitude,” he says. “She’s such a wonderful, warm human being who deserves nothing but the best opportunities in life.”

Irvin and Kayla’s teachers at Starkey Station couldn’t agree more.

“She is actively seeking out productive ways to fill her time, applying for jobs independently, and smiling all the time!” Irvin says. “She has gone from having great anxiety and fear about the future to looking forward to what new and exciting opportunities and challenges await her.”

Lutheran Family Services leaders hope Kayla’s experience foreshadows success for LFSVA’s new Supported Employment Services program, which will provide job development, job coaching, and placement support for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in southwest Virginia.

“I just hope a lot of other people get this same opportunity I did,” Kayla says. “It really helped.”

Coming in Part II of Kayla’s story: Graduation Day.