Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick
Kenowa Hills ー Raised as a Red Wings and Grand Rapids Griffins hockey fan, Jackson Solow lights up while skating on an ice rink wearing his favorite hockey jersey.
“I made the shot!” Jackson cheered while his parents, Angel and Alex Solow, and his teacher from Central Elementary, Marsha Martinez, watched from the bench.
“Yay! Good job, Jackson,” replied Jackson’s people, who clapped every time he made a goal, even when he was only a foot away from the net.
A fourth-grader with autism spectrum disorder, Jackson connected with Central Assistant Principal Chris Bernard, or ‘Mr. B’ as students call him, over their shared love for hockey.
“Ever since I first noticed him rocking a Red Wings jersey in class, I knew how to connect and communicate with Jackson,” Bernard said. “His face lit up when I told him I used to play and coach hockey.”
After months of planning, Jackson and Mr. B got to spend an hour after school passing a puck at the Walker Ice & Fitness Center.
A former hockey player at East Kentwood, Bernard came up with the idea to take Jackson to skate at the ice rink, which is managed by his old friend and former goaltender for the Griffins, Mike Fountain. In late February, Bernard asked Jackson if he would want to go skating with him, but then COVID-19 closed schools and paused their plans.
Bernard and Fountain were able to make time for Jackson to skate less than 24 hours before they closed again on Nov. 18, following the state’s latest emergency order closing many facilities including ice rinks.
Suiting Up for Ice Action
Dressed in a Red Wings shirt and red, logo-stamped pants, Jackson arrived at the rink and his parents helped him dress in his gear. When Bernard walked in the doors with his skates and hockey stick in hand, Jackson hopped off the bench and his body language radiated excitement without him saying a word.
After Bernard laced up his skates, he and Jackson were off on the freshly cleaned ice. Fountain even gifted Jackson a kids’ hockey stick to use and take home with him.
“There’s something magical about having the ice all to yourself, like a basketball player getting to shoot hoops on an empty court,” Bernard said.
A bit hesitant at first, Jackson quickly became energetic. Bernard guided him around the ice and the two practiced passing and scoring goals. Jackson’s laughter could be heard throughout the whole rink.
According to Bernard, Jackson was more talkative on the ice than he ever was at school.
“He’s in his element out here and it’s amazing to see,” Bernard said. “He normally talks and laughs with me but not like this. He was laughing like crazy and chatting up a storm.”
Angel Solow and Martinez laughed alongside Jackson about how much of a character he was.
“He loves being the center of attention,” Solow said. “At home, he’ll pretend to be a game show host and bow when we clap for him.”
Martinez admired Jackson’s sense of humor at school with everyone he meets.
“He’s so much fun in the classroom,” Martinez said. “He’s always the first one ready to go and keeps us all on our toes.”
Thriving in Special Programs
According to Jackson’s parents, he has thrived in Martinez’s class and with the special education program at Kenowa Hills.
“Jackson was non-verbal when he started at Kenowa Hills and now you can’t get him to stop talking,” Solow explained.
Outside of school, Jackson plays with the West Michigan Special Hockey Association team, a nonprofit organization offering an amateur ice hockey program for children and young adults with any developmental disability.
“Finding the special hockey team was such a blessing,” Solow said. “He was a little nervous the first day of practice but by the end, he didn’t want to take off his skates.”
At the end of their time on the ice, Jackson turned towards his family and took several bows; all were met with applause. When asked to smile for a picture with his family, teacher and Mr. B, Jackson, yelled out, “Cheese!”
“We do so much celebrating of students inside the classroom, but they’re so much more outside of these four walls,” Bernard said as he unlaced his skates on the bench.
After stepping off the ice onto the rubber rink floor, Jackson wobbled back into the lobby, still wearing his skates, and whispered under his helmet, “That was so fun.”