Last month we discussed community. Empathy is a result of true community - when everyone gets to participate and when you take time to listen to and learn from those around you, developing empathy is, hopefully, a natural next step.

This month, we're hearing from two moms of former SAMi and SOTA students whose children particularly needed an environment where empathy was practiced. Mary Buchholtz is the mother of Aaron, a SOTA grad who has developmental delays that impact his ability to communicate. Sally Carmen is the mother of AiPing, a SAMi grad who started her life in China and then had to adjust to life in the US starting at 12. We're grateful that both Aaron and AiPing we able to be part of the SOTA and SAMi communities, and are excited to share their stories with you.

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Jon Ketler

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 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 plan.”

The firm 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 made sure to provide him with opportunities that would allow him to pursue those interests: his math class used trains as manipulatives to teach math 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 mini term 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 the public bus system. In humanities they learned about the Chinese workers that built the train tracks. She said that he understood that the workers weren’t treated well and showed her photos of the workers. He understood the main points, and he may not have been exposed to the material 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 mini-term. This opportunity has blossomed into full time work for him. The staff members there have helped him to see his strengths and continue to provide 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.”

My daughter was fortunate to attend Science and Math Institute from Fall 2012 until she graduated in Spring of 2016. AiPing was adopted from a Chinese orphanage at the age of twelve. Her middle school years were spent attempting to adjust to a new family, culture, and a difficult, confusing language. After speaking with the SAMI principal Mrs. Tinder about AiPing’s circumstances, we were encouraged to have AiPing apply to SAMI, hoping that the values of Community, Empathy, Thinking, and Balance would truly be practiced.

While I am certain that SAMI serves a wide variety of students well, AiPing’s unusual situation required both administration and individual instructors to approach her education in a thoughtful and understanding way, while assisting her to maintain the high standards she expected of herself.  AiPing had valued academic achievement in China, and wished to prove that, despite ongoing language and background struggles, she could do well.  A spirit of encouragement and enthusiasm was evident from the beginning, from her mentor teacher Mrs. Woodward to all of the other faculty, even those she didn’t have for class!  Not only did her teachers provide added academic support to compensate for gaps, but they also observed her interpersonal interactions, reporting to me that she had made some wonderful friends.

Many of AiPing’s teachers provided her with extra interests, including Mr. Devine, who took time to instruct her on his electronic DJ equipment so she could assist at school dances!  During her final year of Calculus 3-4, Mr. Chalberg frequently made himself available to coach her in the subject while assisting her with college applications, along with Mrs. Woodward.   AiPing learned to feel that she was valued as a student AND as as a developing young person who could do wonderful things. 

The creativity, energy, and compassion AiPing experienced from staff every day during her SAMI experience provided a means for her to show her strengths, overcome her obstacles, and achieve at the highest level.  Because of the relationships she had with teachers, her interests were directed and focused; her struggles were understood, and her successes were met with joy.  The values of Community, Empathy, Thinking, and Balance were indeed apparent in AiPing’s SAMI experience.