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ACCE Graduate Mason Gillespie Finds Success Through UA Little Rock/Easterseals Arkansas Career Preparation Program

Mason Gillespie with his beloved car.
Mason Gillespie with his beloved car.

Since 2017, UA Little Rock and Easterseals Arkansas have partnered to provide the Academics, Community, Career Development, and Employment (ACCE) Program to help prepare students with disabilities for the workforce.

Mason Gillespie, a May 2021 graduate of the ACCE program, has made some major life changes since starting the program in August 2020. He started a full-time job at Dillard’s Fulfillment Center in March. His gainful employment allowed him to purchase his first car, a 2014 Dodge Charger that he loves.

“I liked making new friends and getting a Dodge Charger,” Gillespie said. “I also liked getting a job.”

The two-semester ACCE program on UA Little Rock’s campus is an opportunity for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to have a college experience and prepare for competitive employment. Academics, social support, work exploration, and job placement are key components of the program.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 31.5 percent of working-age people with disabilities were employed during summer 2021. Studies have shown that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who participate in post-secondary education have better jobs and receive higher earnings.

“There were 12 students in Mason’s class,” said Kaylan Norton, ACCE coordinator and employment specialist for Easterseals Arkansas. “Students learn about the importance of being in a classroom setting with the outcome to gain employment. That’s part of the experience of being an independent adult and college student on campus. The students try different work experiences and hear from guest speakers about available job opportunities. Some of the graduates decide to go on to a vocational or trade school or try college or an apprenticeship.”

Gillespie was also the first ACCE participant to earn his driver’s license during the program and the first to obtain a job in his class.

“Mason has been saving and budgeting for a goal like this even before he started the ACCE program,” Norton said. “He spoke about getting a car in his interview for the ACCE program as a long-term goal to achieve. He was also my first student that passed his driver license’s test during the program. That is the first time we’ve offered the training during the program. His work ethic and attitude during the program showed how determined he was to succeed and accept any challenge. I really enjoyed working with him and his family to reach the goals he had set for himself. I know this is just the beginning of many more accomplishments.”

Mason’s mother, Dawn Gillespie, said that she and her husband are very proud of his achievements.

“Mason enjoys his freedom of being able to drive,” she said. “He’s making more money than I did when I got out of college. We are very proud of him. He keeps up with one of his friends from the class. He’s gotten a lifelong friend from this experience along with job training and job placement education.”

Now that he’s in the workforce, Gillespie said he feels more confident in himself and his abilities.

“Working makes me feel important and proud,” he said. “I got hired on the first day I had the job interview.”

Outside of work, Gillespie enjoys paintball, hog hunting, gaming, and fixing his RC car. He said his future goals are to buy a truck and then a house. He was featured on the national Easterseals website and Facebook page in October to recognize National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

“Mason is a big example of what the ACCE program offers to students with special needs,” Norton said. “Their special needs do not have a limitation of what they can achieve and be successful. Mason is making more money than a lot of people coming out of college with a degree.”