‘Amazing’ teachers at Pine Grove offer a beacon of hope for students like Evan

Despite multiple impairments, Evan Valdivia has lots of love and hope from his family and staff at Pine Grove Learning Center

For Evan Valdivia and his parents, Aaron and Shelli, the Pine Grove Learning Center is a beacon of hope.

Evan, 14, is non-verbal and has cerebral palsy. He also has a rare neurological disorder called linear epidermal nevus syndrome (ENS). He also has scoliosis and epilepsy. He is unable to walk, is transported by wheelchair and eats from a feeding tube.

Thanks to the staff at Pine Grove Learning Center, Evan is learning to respond to others around him. He is happy and thriving despite multiple impairments that make his life difficult. He is learning to brush his teeth and gaining strength in his frail limbs.

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“His teachers are amazing,” says Shelli Valdivia, who transports him 30 miles from their home near Alto to Pine Grove in their family’s minivan every morning and picks him up every afternoon. After trying a year of private care for Evan, they were eager to get him back to Pine Grove, where he has shown greater progress and eagerness to learn.

Evan is one of 103 students enrolled at the center, where the most challenged special education students and their families in Southwest Kent County find opportunities to learn despite their profound physical and learning disabilities.

Located at 2101 52nd St. SW, the 10-year-old school is one of nine special education centers whose management and operations will be transferred from Grand Rapids Public Schools to Kent ISD this summer.

Teacher Pam Seymour brings Evan Valdivia to the front door of school with Evan’s mom, Shelli, at his side

Commute is Worth It

The Valdivias kept Evan at home for a year after they moved to a new home south of Alto. But they brought him back to Pine Grove this year despite the 30-mile commute Shelli makes with him twice a day.

Evan has been thriving as a result of the move, says Shelli, who has three other children at home, including two toddlers. Aaron, a third-shift printer at Amway Corp., helps out with the transportation and housework.

Unlike traditional schools, at Pine Grove Evan and his parents have bonded closely to his teachers and the occupational therapists who work with him every day.

Evan’s teacher, Pam Seymour, places notes about Evan’s day in his backpack every night. She often confers with his mom when Shelli picks him up and drops him off. She occasionally sends photos to Shelli’s cell phone during the day.

“I make a really huge effort to make my classroom like a family,” says Seymour, who has been teaching at Pine Grove for three years.

Dad Aaron lifts Evan and brings him to his chair in their living room

‘Lots of Patience, Lots of Repetition’

One of Evan’s favorite teachers is Paul Beuschel, an occupational therapy assistant who has been teaching Evan how to brush his teeth over the past several months.

Beuschel says Evan warmed up to him when he pretended Evan’s vocalizations were an elephant’s warning when the “lion” (Beuschel) entered his “jungle.” Beuschel says he gets on the floor and allows Evan to push him over as part of their play.

“The kids in this population love physical touch,” says Beuschel. “They like to roll around, they like to laugh, they like to be in control.”

Beuschel, a former warehouse worker who retrained for his job and joined the Pine Grove staff seven years ago, says he has learned to love working with special needs students.

“To get them to do things, it takes a lot of patience, it takes a lot of repetition,” says Beuschel. “For me, one of the biggest things is interacting with them genuinely. They can read you when you’re not being real with them.”

Seymour and Beuschel expect to work with Evan for several years. By law, special needs students in Michigan can remain in the public education system until they are 26 years old or until they are ready to live independently.

Like most of their colleagues, Seymour and Beuschel plan to continue teaching at Pine Grove when Kent ISD takes over control of the centers on July 1.

James Harger
James Harger reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor. Read James' full bio or email James.

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