HAVERHILL — Zachary Cloutier's duties at his internship with the Essex County Sheriff's Department Basic Training Academy were supposed to be mainly clerical. Then they found out he could run, and the work placement soon blossomed into so much more.
Cloutier, of Methuen, has autism spectrum disorder. He was placed with the sheriff's department training academy through an Opportunity Works program that helps those with developmental or cognitive disabilities learn work skills through a series of 12-week internships, including placements at Northern Essex Community College.
The 21 year old was mainly supposed to be doing filing and organizing rosters. But his exceptional running ability – Cloutier is a marathoner, with four of the grueling 26.2-mile races already under his belt – led the recruits he worked and ran alongside with to gain just as much inspiration from him as he was gaining from his internship.
“They've welcomed him with open arms and taken him in as one of their own,” said Mike Smolski, one of the program's drill instructors.
Cloutier came to the sheriff's department through an Opportunity Works' Project SEARCH program that places those enrolled into three internships over nine months to gain workforce skills, and then helps them find jobs in the community once they graduate.
“They learn different skills so they can be employed in different parts of the community where they have the opportunity to learn different things than they would in a traditional vocational program,” Project SEARCH Coordinator Jamie Nadeau said.
Cloutier is the first intern to be placed at the Basic Training Academy, which is housed on the college's Haverhill campus.
“The partnership with the college has been immensely fruitful and now with the sheriff's academy has been amazing,” Nadeau said, praising the sheriff's department and their recruits for “welcoming Zach with open arms, bringing him on as one of their own, building his confidence.”
Opportunity Works knew they needed a strong candidate to present to the sheriff's department. Cloutier, who was referred straight from high school by the Department of Developmental Services, was a good fit.
“Zach is strong with personal skills, great manners,” Nadeau said, adding that he's also “good at filing,” an important component of the internship.
Over the weeks, Cloutier has formed quite a bond with the sheriff's department recruits that went far beyond learning organizational skills. An honorary drill instructor since day one, Cloutier goes everywhere with the recruits, from 5:30 a.m. runs, to defensive tactics training, to the “family night” banquet they had shortly before graduation last week. He even did a presentation during disability awareness training.
“He's got a full drill instructor uniform, he's had pictures with us, professional photos. He's been with us every step of the way, done everything the drill instructors do,” Smolski said.
Not everyone who comes into basic training is a runner, so Smolski said this group of recruits has used Cloutier, who has been running since he was 12 years old, for motivation. Cloutier runs at the front of the formation with the drill staff, and has thrived from it, Smolski said.
“Whether it's in the classroom or running, he's with them all the time, so he's become close with them and he motivates them to run and they motivate him to run,” he said.
Cloutier also knows some of the recruits from attending high school in Methuen, and is pleased to see them develop and grow into their own through the program.
“I like how some of our recruits have some leadership abilities,” he said.
The internship has also broadened Cloutier's interest in the sheriff's department. He was enthusiastic about his three encounters with Sheriff Kevin Coppinger, and said he thinks he'd “be most interested in the sheriff's academy right now to be a drill instructor,” a big grin stealing across his face at the thought.
Following the completion of the 12-week basic training last week and a graduation ceremony – which Cloutier attended, in uniform – the recruits are now working at various Essex County facilities, including Middleton Jail. Cloutier is moving on as well; he'll start his next internship doing maintenance work on Northern Essex's Lawrence campus.
He'll also be focusing on his marathon training. He has two races coming up: a marathon in Salisbury Beach in April, and the Vermont City Marathon in May. He runs, he said, because “it keeps me fit.”
Both Opportunity Works and the sheriff's department are pleased with how Cloutier's internship turned out. Beyond his positive influence on the recruits, Cloutier himself has “just grown in leaps and bounds,” Nadeau said. When he sat down with The Eagle-Tribune last week he was poised and professional, sharply dressed in a blazer and tie with an American flag pinned to the lapel, sitting at attention in a high-backed leather chair with his hands clasped before him and a large, eager smile.
“With this program, his independence level has skyrocketed,” Nadeau added.
Based on Cloutier's success, both groups hope to keep their partnership going, as Opportunity Works seeks to keep placing more interns and the sheriff's department looks to continue its community outreach.
“It would be great, they've been an amazing site to work with, just very accommodating, welcoming; they really have played to Zach's strengths,” Nadeau said.
Follow Lisa Kashinsky on Twitter @lisakashinsky.