BELMAR, NJ — Mention Fran Hines’ name anywhere in Belmar and there is certain to be someone there who knows him — whether it was when he worked for the borough’s public works department or for his ongoing volunteer service with the Belmar First Aid Squad.
But in recent years, Hines is becoming known for yet another role in serving the community — one that is closest to his heart. Since retiring from Belmar after a 31-year career, he has served as autism outreach coordinator for the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office.
“I knew it was something I was supposed to be doing,” said Hines, whose has a son with autism.
While he lectured on autism awareness for a host of organizations, including local police departments, it wasn’t until he retired in 2016 as assistant superintendent of Belmar public works that his efforts were brought into sharper focus. That’s when he received a phone call from Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden.
“He asked me if I was interested in doing more, and I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” he recalled.
For the past two years, Hines has been responsible for providing autism awareness training to thousands of law enforcement and public safety personnel throughout the county — from new police recruits and seasoned officers to corrections officers and park rangers.
Believed to be one of the only such initiatives of its kind in the United States — the program is being recognized by the sheriff’s office in April during National Autism Awareness Month.
During his classes, Hines provides training on how to prepare for dealing with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), emphasizing that having a deep understanding on how to approach a situation is crucial.
“Many times, the behaviors of a person with autism can be mistaken for something else,” he said. “Situational awareness is what the training is all about.”
Because persons with ASD behave differently, it’s important to be patient and understand the situation, he explains to program participants. For example, a person with ASD may display such behaviors as being nonverbal, having no eye contact, exhibiting violent tendencies, fear and nervousness.
In addition, he tells them that since individuals with ASD may not take direction or answer questions, they must learn how to effectively interact with them. “You have to figure out and understand what’s going on in order to assist an individual who may need help,” he said.
As the father of a son with autism, Hines also brings his wealth of personal knowledge to the training table, as well as his concerns. “My biggest fear is that my son’s behavior may be mistaken for something it isn’t,” he said.
And that’s why "Frannie," as he’s known to many, is committed to what he does.
Today, 20-year-old son Colton Hines is a success story in his own right (in photo at left with Belmar public works veteran George Komitas).
After working part time for Belmar for four years, he became a full-time public works employee last year following his graduation from Hawkswood School, a special education school in Eatontown.
In July, when his hiring was approved by the borough council, Public Works Director Michael Campbell publicly acknowledged Colton’s dedication to Belmar. “The same love Frannie has for Belmar, Colton has. When you see Colton working on the streets, he runs, he hustles, he wants to be like his father, and that’s a blessing.”