Editor’s note: This is the final article in a five-part series featuring Colchester’s Champlain Community Services, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities find meaningful employment, living conditions and community engagement.

CCS client Thomas Caswell (left) and bridging program coordinator Emily Anderson are pictured at the nonprofit’s garden last week in Colchester. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Like many people with disabilities, 22-year-old Thomas Caswell struggled through his teenage years. His difficulties, though, propelled him into a life of self-advocacy that’s had a lasting effect on both him and his peers.

As a young man with autism, Caswell cultivated his passion to fight for his rights, as well as others with disabilities, during his high school years. Part of this activism was through Champlain Community Services’ bridging program.

Each year at Colchester’s CCS, support staff aids around 12 students from local high schools — Colchester, Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski and Caswell’s alma mater, Mount Mansfield Union — in gaining the necessary skills and knowledge to transition from high school to adulthood. The program’s four main focuses are career exploration, community engagement, independent living and advocacy.

“I was having a hard time advocating for myself because I had to face a lot of insecurities and judgments throughout my teenage years,” Caswell said. “So I thought if I got involved in advocacy work, it would prove my life to be able to stand up for myself and try to prove my life could be better than [expected].”

Caswell recounted his two-year experience in the bridging program with vast excitement, listing off his various projects and, most importantly, his inaugural presidency in the program-based activist group, Bridging Advocates Together.

Thomas Caswell is a former student enrolled in Champlain Community Services’ bridging program, which helps its clients attain the necessary skills to succeed in adult life. Caswell, 22, has autism and says the bridging program, especially its career exploration component, helped him narrow his job skills. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

His prior activism in Champlain Voices — a CCS advocacy group part of Green Mountain Self Advocates, a statewide network — notched some experience under his belt, he said. So when the idea of BAT came about, he said he felt it was a place he could really belong.

“This is a group I could really contribute to,” he said.

Each year, BAT elects officers and develops goals it then puts into action. The bridging program meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to noon during the school year. Schools provide transportation for students, who enroll for an average of one to three years, according to program coordinator Emily Anderson.

Even after Caswell moved on to Project SEARCH in South Burlington — a program that provides internship opportunities to student-aged individuals with developmental disabilities — he continued returning to the bridging group this past year as often as he could.

Caswell is sticking with CCS, too, and receives 20 hours per week of support services there. He thinks the bridging program’s career exploration project helped him immensely.

Placed at the Essex Hannaford, Caswell gave his peers a tour of the supermarket, allowing them to see a variety of professions in action, Anderson said.

Caswell also interviewed two teachers from his former middle school, though he admits he likely won’t follow in their footsteps. Still, Anderson encourages bridging program enrollees to set their sights on meaningful opportunities.

At the end of this year’s bridging program, CCS students got to celebrate their goal with a gathering at Colchester Police Department, an agency with which CCS has partnered in recent years and is also commemorating a 50th anniversary.

Police Chief Jennifer Morrison said the department’s relationship with CCS is a partnership that may benefit her officers even more than it does the students, who hopefully learn to see police as their friends.

Caswell (center) and other bridging program graduates celebrate CCS’ and Colchester Police Department’s 50th anniversaries. At left, Chief Jennifer Morrison smiles as students reveal a celebratory cake. (Photo by Mike Reilly)

“[Caswell has] become more confident, and we’re excited to see his progress,” Morrison said. “We hope that in some way, we’ve helped them be ready to take on the world outside of a structured environment.”

Students also learn independent living skills, attending sessions with Opportunities Credit Union to talk the ins and outs of bank accounts and personal finance.

Caswell proclaimed the importance of people with disabilities legally having a separate bank account that isn’t subject to income tax — an act put in place by President Barack Obama in 2014.

For Caswell, CCS’ program was a positive alternative to the negative experiences he had within traditional school walls.

“It just means so much,” he said, noting the friendships and skills he’s nurtured. “I learned I could do so much.”