Aaron Buchholtz is a gentle giant. He’s well over 6 feet tall and one of the most lovable people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He has developmental delays that make it hard for him to speak more than a few words at a time, but he’s always been able to communicate love and compassion with large hugs and genuine smiles.

His mom, Mary, told me that Aaron very nearly didn’t attend SOTA. Her older daughter, Ashley, was a junior at the school when Mary got a phone call from SOTA's co-director, Jon Ketler, asking her whether Aaron was going to apply to the school. She hadn’t realized that it was an option for students in Special Education, and was initially thinking that he wouldn’t be able to attend. Mary says, “Jon asked me, ‘Mary, do you want Aaron to spend all day sitting in the same room, or do you want him to be part of a community?’ And so we started the application process.”

Aaron receiving his diploma and shaking hands with Jon Ketler at graduation

Aaron receiving his diploma and shaking hands with Jon Ketler at graduation

Mary mentioned that empathy was evident even from the first day of camp. There was a breakout session where the students were supposed to put on a skit that incorporated the idea of Balance. During the conversation, Aaron got everyone’s attention and then stood on one leg. That motion was ultimately incorporated into their skit. Mary says, “I know that there is a lot more to balance than being able to balance on one foot, but that the students were willing to incorporate his idea and that he felt comfortable enough to share his idea told me that SOTA would work even if there wasn’t yet a firm educational plan.”

The plan that ultimately developed was affectionately known as “Team Aaron.” One of the primary members of the team was a senior named Bethany who was at risk of not graduating due to poor attendance. Several teachers noticed that Bethany had a heart for taking care of others, so she spent the majority of her senior year as a one-on-one helper for Aaron. Mary tells me, “the teachers at the school kept reporting that being Aaron’s one-on-one helper changed Bethany’s life to the point where she came to school sick because she wanted to make sure that Aaron would be ok at school. The one-on-one didn’t just help Aaron academically, it also gave Bethany a larger purpose for attending school.” This culminated in her Senior Project where she organized a field trip for Aaron that incorporated his love of trains.

Everyone at the school, from students to the co-directors, paid close attention to Aaron’s interests, and guaranteeing him opportunities that would allow him to pursue those interests. His math class used trains as manipulatives to teach computational skills. His photography class allowed him to take photos of trains and games. Many of his paintings in visual arts looked like topographical maps depicting train tracks. He took a miniterm class at the Washington State History Museum with the guys that run the large train. Mary says, “It was full inclusion without throwing Aaron in and hoping he could fend for himself. It’s individuals caring for individuals.”

Mary notes that Aaron was also able to learn a number of skills that he may not have learned in a pull-out special education class. He became proficient at negotiating the public bus system. In humanities he learned about the Chinese workers who built the train tracks across the United States. At home he showed Mary photos of the workers and then used a few words to describe their poor working conditions. He understood the main points, which he may not have been exposed to at all in a different setting.

Aaron with friends and family at graduation

Aaron with friends and family at graduation

When he was in his final year of school, Aaron had an internship at the Tacoma Lutheran Home during miniterm. This opportunity blossomed into full time work for him. The staff members there have helped him to see his strengths, providing him with more ways to volunteer as they see new abilities. He’s now 27 and is there five days a week, helping with exercise classes, carrying groceries, and assisting with meals. Mary says that he takes his work there very seriously. He had to get his food handler’s card and Mary notes that Aaron is extremely proud of the card: “he carries the card around in his wallet and likes to show people. It’s a demonstration of something that he’s been able to accomplish.”

Mary concluded by saying, “there was recognition [at SOTA] that Aaron is a valuable person. These pillars don’t just sound good. Aaron was seen as valuable by other students, by the teachers, and by the co-directors. They weren’t faking it.”