At the Starting Line

By Heather Honaker for the April 2022 issue of Little Rock Soiree magazine

By all appearances Mason Gillespie is just like any other young adult. In reality, he’s extraordinary.

Handsome with a quick sense of humor, strong work ethic and quest for learning, Mason is easy to admire. Like most outdoorsmen, he likes to hog hunt and fish. He drives and repairs large-scale RC trucks and spends most of his Sundays at the Action Town Park in Mayflower shooting paintballs.

Photo by Jason Masters

Outgoing, always willing to help out and easy to befriend, Mason was presented the Selfless Service Award by his football coach at Maumelle High School in 2019 in recognition of his time as team manager.

Mason has gotten up at 3 a.m. every Wednesday through Saturday for the past year to load trucks with boxes of shoes, clothes and accessories to be delivered to homes and stores across the country. With every early morning, he saved his paychecks and kept his eye on the promise of independence and freedom — something nearly every 20-something craves — in the form of his own vehicle.

What sets Mason apart from his peers, though, is that he is developmentally delayed, has ADHD, stutters and holds a diagnosis of language disorders. All are obstacles that could keep one from living his best life, but not Mason.

Whatever he decides to do, he accomplishes. Approximately one year ago, Mason graduated from the Academics, Community, Career Development and Employment Program (ACCE) — a partnership between UA Little Rock and Easterseals Arkansas — and landed a full-time job at Dillard’s Fulfillment Center. A few months later, he bought a Dodge Charger to take him anywhere he wants to go.

THE ROAD TO REMARKABLE

As a sophomore in high school, Mason first joined the Easterseals family through the Student pre-Employment Transition for Success program. The goal of SET for Success is to prepare students for life after high school with an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or a 504 plan, both used in educational development for students with special needs.

“Working with the SET program, he was working at Baptist Hospital in the cafeteria,” says Dawn Gillespie, Mason’s mom. “Half the day was lessons about jobs, and then the second half of the day, they actually worked in the cafeteria, so he filled the shelves with bottled drinks, chips and cookies.”

Photo by Jason Masters

In 2020, Mason graduated from high school and started the college-based ACCE program for an opportunity at a college experience while also preparing for employment. Through ACCE he learned about resume writing, interview skills and found job placement. At his ACCE graduation, he was chosen to be the student graduate speaker.

“Mason is an amazing young man. He was definitely a joy to work with as a student,” ACCE Coordinator and Employment Specialist Kaylan Norton says. “His work ethic and attitude during the program showed how determined he was to succeed and accept any challenge.”

ACCE is a two-semester program on the UA Little Rock campus and is ideal for young adults with intellectual disabilities, such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Academics, social support and work exploration are all components of the program.

With his dream of owning a car in mind, Mason also used his time in ACCE to learn how to drive. According to Norton, he was the first student to obtain his driver’s license through the program and the first in his class to obtain a job.

BUT JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE

Photo by Jason Masters

With more than 75 years in the field, Easterseals is leading the way to full equity, inclusion and access through life-changing disability and community services. The nonprofit has worked throughout its history with partners to enhance quality of life and expand local access to health care, education and employment opportunities.

The organization guides people with disabilities to live as independently as possible through services that can span a lifetime. From its child developmental centers and outpatient therapy to job training and roommate housing programs, Easterseals is empowering people with disabilities, families and communities to be full and equal participants of society.

“It went so fast. He got the driver’s license, got the job, finished the program; it was just like, boom, boom, boom,” Dawn says. “He accomplished so much in a short little span. Wow. It was a proud moment.”

Dawn adds that all of Mason’s therapists and teachers throughout the years are to thank for what got him this far.

Photo by Jason Masters

“They, like [Norton] are the keys to his success. They are on my speed dial.”

As for what Mason would like Soirée readers to know about people with special needs, he says he is no different than any other person who tries their best. He wants to accomplish things in life, but it just may be a little harder of a road or take a little more time.

Mason’s advice for people interested in the ACCE program is very simple advice that anyone, special needs or not, can use for benefit.

“Listen,” he says. “Just listen.”

Norton takes it a step further.

“Don’t count [people with special needs] out because they’re the very ones that come up with the next invention, the next idea, the next thing you’ll be utilizing or purchasing,” she says.

“And I can tell you this, Mason ain’t done yet. He’s just getting started.”

PHOTOGRAPHY
JASON MASTERS

STYLING
JOSIE BURNETT

CLOTHING
DILLARD’S

This piece was originally printed in the April 2022 issue of Little Rock Soiree magazine.

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