Special education teacher Ann Marie Bokatzian admits that she chose to work with students with autism because “I fell in love with the disability.”
“The purity of their souls just mesmerized me. I never intended it. They’re so pure in spirit, so pure in their soul. They don’t lie; they can’t lie. To me, they’re the closest you can get to God. And they challenge me every day with their questions, their view of the world,” she said.
During her 23-year career, Bokatzian has worked with students from preschool through high school. But she has evolved into being a transition specialist, a unique breed of teachers who prepare special education students for life beyond the classroom.
Although she’s employed by the Grosse Pointe Public School System in suburban Detroit, Bokatzian is assigned to work in a retail clothing shop, Full Circle Upscale Resale, which provides work-based training for dozens of special education students every year. The students may have autism or Asperger syndrome, developmental delays, or cognitive impairments (including Down syndrome).
Each school day this semester, 27 Grosse Pointe high school students with a variety of disabilities spend up to 50% of their school week getting hands-on experience at the shop. In the 4,000-square foot facility, they learn how to sort, iron, arrange, and tag the thousands of clothing items donated for sale in the shop.
The community’s support for the shop is obvious in racks filled with donated clothing and shoes and the steady flow of customers. In the back of the shop, clothes fill more racks, just waiting for space to open in the front of the shop.
When Bokatzian and adult volunteers aren’t managing the cash register, they’re providing students with all sorts of guidance about behavior. Every moment at Full Circle is intended to be a learning opportunity for students. This means students hear frequent reminders about how to interact with customers and how to manage their own behavior, all with an eye toward skills they’ll need to thrive in a less-protected work environment.
Work is good
Full Circle opened in 2009 when Mary Fodell, a retired Grosse Pointe art teacher who has an adult daughter with development delays, was searching for a way to help children like her daughter Amy develop job skills. Few students who graduated from the Individual Education Program found jobs, and Fodell believed they wanted — and needed — meaningful work as much as their peers.
“You can see the spark of genius in these kids, but they can’t necessarily use it in a job situation,” Bokatzian said. She points to the student who is brilliant at algebra but can’t do simple mathematics, another who can immediately tell you the day of the week for any date on the calendar, and another who can provide the day, time, and place of every event in his family’s history.
The resale shop is self-sustaining and has proven so successful that the Full Circle Foundation is developing other areas where this clientele can gain more skills and contribute something of significance to the community. Last summer, Full Circle opened an organic community garden at Riverview Health & Rehabilitation Center in nearby Detroit. Food from the garden is taken to Services for Older Citizens in Grosse Pointe, which is donating a kitchen and classroom space to further support the program.
Plans are underway to introduce other “microenterprises” to take advantage of unique student interests. E-bay businesses are already beginning because students with autism are fascinated by computers. “They love computers because the human element is eliminated. When you take the feel, taste, sight out of something, all of those things that help you connect with the human world, you’re left with something that has no emotion. They feel comfortable with that. There’s less to interpret,” Bokatzian said.
Some days, I feel overwhelmed by adults who are fearful of being near anyone who is not like them. Then, I walk into Full Circle, and I feel so grateful to live in a community with teachers like Ann Marie Bokatzian who see God in every child. JR