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Walkathon delivers peer connections, outside experiences

On a chilly fall morning, student volunteers from several school districts converged on Pine Grove Learning Center to participate in what is shaping up to be an annual event: the school walkathon.

Godfrey-Lee Middle School student Jesslen Hinojosa escorts Pine Grove student Sadie VanderWal outside for the walkathon

Volunteers cheered, drummed, pushed, pulled and walked alongside students from Pine Grove, a center for students with moderate to severe cognitive impairments and autism spectrum disorder.

One Pine Grove student, an 18-year-old named JJ, did not hesitate to share his favorite part of the morning: “Seeing the inside of the bus!” The Grandville football players he walked with gave him a tour of their transportation.

Walkathon organizer Molly Cooper, an autism spectrum disorder teacher at Pine Grove, started the event last year to raise money for programming at the school. Cooper said that there are logistical challenges of executing field trips for her students: it’s a lot of work for parents and teachers. But she noticed that her students loved having presentations at the school.

Pine Grove Learning Center
2101 52nd St. SW, Wyoming, Michigan 49519

Opened 2009

45 staff members

Currently serves 108 students ages 5-26 from the following districts: Byron Center, Godfrey-Lee, Godwin Heights, Grandville, Kelloggsville, Wyoming, Kenowa Hills and half of Kentwood

The building is owned by Kent ISD and operated by Grand Rapids Public Schools. In July 2019, GRPS will hand over operations to Kent ISD.

“I wanted to expose them to so many things,” she said. Last year’s event raised $2,100, which funded a monthly student experience at Pine Grove, ranging from a mobile zoo exhibit to the antics of local author and puppeteer Kevin Kammeraad.

A walkathon may seem like an unlikely event for Pine Grove students, as some do not walk. That’s where the volunteers came in. Pine Grove serves students from eight Kent ISD districts, so Cooper reached out to those districts for help with ambulating students. Answering the call were the Grandville High School football and cheer teams, Godfrey-Lee Middle School’s student council and student ambassadors, East Kentwood’s National Honor Society, and the Wyoming High School drumline.

Cooper says she was blown away by the volunteer response and was glad to have a musical component, which is particularly exciting for her students.

“They may not be able to express themselves with words, but they can clap or tap or nod their head,” said Cooper.

Pine Grove student Kahsay Boersma, 6, would’ve danced all day, said his dad, Jason Boersma.

Violet Sherman, seated, joins Grandville High School cheerleaders at the walkathon

“He loves music, he loves walking, he loves sounds, he loves movement.  What a cool event that the community comes to support and love on these kids that are different and unique in their own way.”

Libbie Drake, counselor at Godfrey-Lee Middle School, said she hopes to come back next year with even more volunteers.

“Sometimes they’re nervous around kids with disabilities,” she said, so she was impressed by how quickly her students embraced the opportunity to get to know the Pine Grove students, seven of whom hail from the Godfrey-Lee School District. “These are their neighbors.”

Benjamin Landis, a seventh-grader at Godfrey-Lee Middle School, walks with Aiden Hamilton

The fresh air, festivities and opportunity to meet students from nearby schools resulted in big grins all around.

“When you’re helping people it just makes you feel really good.” said Mario, an eighth-grader at Godfrey-Lee Middle School. “I hope they can raise enough money to see things they would not normally be able to see, like the zoo.”


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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting.


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  1. What a great idea. As a retired SLP from Lincoln, I know what a difference this will make for your students. I even recognize one very handsome young man (you know who you are…). Way to go Pine Grove and supporting school districts!


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