You need to walk quickly to keep up with Pierce. He’s one of West Side Christian School’s (Grand Rapids, MI) hardest workers, and one of the fastest. When he and Reuben Van Til, West Side Christian’s custodian, get together, it’s all business… and Pierce clearly loves it.
Depending on the season, Pierce and Mr. Van Til will rake leaves, shovel snow, or work in the garden. “Once it snows, he has his own snow shovel,” Mr. Van Til shares. “Typically at recess he’ll just take that out and clear the sidewalk, without ever being asked.”
Pierce came to West Side Christian in fourth grade, after attending a public school. Right away, he began staying after assemblies to help clear the chairs. His teachers also noticed his interest in working with Mr. Van Til. Kim Mast, paraprofessional, remembers,
“Pierce would be doing reading, writing, and math. Every time Mr. Van Til rode the tractor or walked by, he was very focused on that. He wanted to see what Mr. Van Til was doing, so we would start watching. That’s how we discovered Pierce’s gifts were in manual work and his interest was in whatever Mr. Van Til was doing.”
The next year, Pierce’s teachers arranged for him to officially work with Mr. Van Til. “It makes school much more enjoyable for Pierce,” Mrs. Mast explains. “Just like gym or art class makes school enjoyable for some kids, this kind of work makes school fun for Pierce… It makes for interesting sentences in writing. If Mr. Van Til is the topic, it really helps. It’s so much more interesting to Pierce than other things.”
“If it’s a snow day, Pierce has tears in his eyes,” shares his mother, Koley Hockeborn. “He wants to go and be part of the school. He’s learning from the other kids, too.”
Pierce has a cognitive impairment, and was placed in a segregated classroom for his early schooling. A neighbor encouraged his mother to consider West Side Christian for Pierce, noticing that when he was around other kids his ticks and language would improve. After meeting with West Side Christian’s leadership and teachers, “They said they could teach him. It was scary and a big step, but he has improved in leaps and bounds.” Pierce is now reading, he is learning penmanship, and he is doing multiplication.
“The academic piece is hard for Pierce, but his gifts are his strength and hard work,” explains Maria Bultsma, Educational Support Services Coordinator.
“This arrangement is really using Pierce’s gifts as best we can. He’s still spending time in class, but he’s using his gifts to do things like distributing the milk, picking up chairs after chapel, and paper recycling. The scheduled days with Mr. Van Til are motivation for him.”
Pierce’s favorite job is riding the tractor. “Last week when we were doing leaves, we’d fill my trailer full of leaves and he rides in the trailer. You don’t see him a whole lot happier than that, and it was a big help to have him out there with me,” says Mr. Van Til. “He likes it when we go in the storage room. He takes my keys and opens the door and turns on the lights. He’s a very hard worker, he works just as hard as I do.”
Pierce’s mother has noticed the difference in Pierce. “Pierce’s teachers at West Side Christian know him, they are so in tune with him. He and Mr. Van Til took to each other right away, and now he’s learning life skills. They created this program for him,” Mrs. Hockeborn shares. Mrs. Bultsma credits CLC Network teacher consultants for providing additional brainstorming and encouragement. “They have provided insight to possible options [for Pierce],” she reflects. “Most of all, [CLC Network consultants] have listened to our concerns and have been very encouraging to our staff.”
“We are working on goals for his future, what he might do after books and after school,” adds Mrs. Bultsma.
“There is a lot of learning going on, a lot of happy things, and a different kind of learning. Pierce has a lot of gifts given to him from God and we’re just trying to figure out how to use those gifts.”
Before working at West Side Christian, Mr. Van Til built custom cabinetry. He’s had the chance to show Pierce his shop and hopes to teach him about a few tools and their basic functions. “It’s a lot nicer than my garage,” says Pierce. “I got to try the air hose,” he remembers with a smile.
Watching Pierce and Mr. Van Til together, their connection shines in both of them. As Mr. Van Til reflects, “It’s advantageous for me and for Pierce to be doing this. I feel a little more important when we work together. It’s not the most glamorous job in the world but I’ve always felt called to be here and share some of my knowledge with the kids.”
Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network.