Kent ISD, MI —
It took the better part of four years for Mike Alanowski to get his foot in the door as a full-time employee in the facilities department at Kent ISD.
And now that he's entrenched, it's doubtful anyone will ever be able pry him out of what has become just one of his homes away from home, where he shines as an employee with a voracious appetite to please and to serve.
Not bad for someone whose parents were told at Mike's birth that he'd never walk or talk -- let alone operate heavy equipment, and emerge as manager of a high school football team or coach of a hockey squad for kids with special needs.
In a powerful sense, he's become a touchstone for all that's noble about Kent ISD's Kent Transition Center. KTC allows students to bypass some elements of a traditional education, and instead hop on an alternate track allowing them to immerse themselves in programs where hands-on experience equips them for skills they can use in the workplace and in life.
"Nobody has a better attitude than Mike," says Cindy Meyer, secretary for the facilities department. "I've never heard him say 'can't.' It's always, 'Hey, Mike, can you do this?' and the answer we hear every time is 'Sure.'"
The son of John and Barb Alanowski, Mike was born Nov. 14, 1989 with enough signs tied to cerebral palsy that doctors predicted he'd never walk or talk, he relates.
"I took my first steps at 2," says Mike, and that began a lifetime of beating the odds. "If someone says I can't do it, I'll prove them wrong and do it."
The affliction extended to his right side, his dominant one, "so I had to learn everything left-handed," he says. His vehicle is fitted with an accelerator on the left side to accommodate his driving needs, but other than that, he needs virtually no other adaptive devices.
Where he's employed, he drives, mows, mulches and performs maintenance on standard machinery. From his cabin near Baldwin, he hunts whitetails with a crossbow, shooting just fine as a southpaw. He's bagged a dozen deer – mostly bucks -- from a 25-foot-high tree stand, and annually donates venison to the hungry.
On a lighter note, he smiles to tell how "people are amazed that I can tie my shoes with just one hand." He snickers some: "OK, my right hand helps out a little."
From Student to Employee
Mike started working the Kent ISD grounds as a part-timer while still taking classes at KTC and while enrolled at Northview High School. Tim Peraino, Kent ISD facilities director, was impressed from the start.
"Mike's worth ethic is just tremendous. It's what convinced us to hire him on as a full-time employee" in November 2016, says Peraino. "He not only does his job well, but he's dedicated to the ISD as a former student. He's become one with the campus and our community."
Mike roams the district's 119 acres with an air of authority, but he's humble in the way in which he approaches his duties. It's nothing for him to mow half that amount (which comprises Kent ISD's green spaces), or to mulch all day in the hot sun, or to climb aboard or beneath a piece of machinery that needs tending to.
When Mike's not putting in his 40 or more hours a week, you'll find him volunteering in several capacities – including as manager of the Northview High School varsity football team, or coaching kids as young as 5 playing hockey at Griff's Icehouse in Grand Rapids.
'If someone says I can't do it, I'll prove them wrong and do it.' -- Mike Alanowski
He's been working the sidelines for the Wildcats since he was a freshman there. "I just love being on the field, and Friday-night football is just so enjoyable."
Of both managing and coaching, he sums it up with an appreciation focused on others: "I love the kids and seeing them have fun."
Mike also has served his church a youth leader for more than a decade. And he is a devoted friend to Stephanie Twiss and Staci Davey, pals for the past 14 years, even as both women chose husbands and had daughters. Mike himself is single.
School Made the Difference
Mike's association with KTC was a godsend: "They really gave me a meaningful outlook on life when I was a student there," he says, noting that he was schooled about mowers and more at Four Seasons Yard & Sport Equipment, Inc. on Alpine Avenue NW. "I wasn't really good at things like reading textbooks or taking notes. I'm a hands-on kind of guy. But I 'get it' real fast. And KTC realized that in me."
Mike actually started his own business – Wildcat Lawn Care – when he was 18, so 10 years ago. He had about 25 clients, which he had to turn over to competitors so he could help care for his parents, both in their mid-60s.
Mother Barb is a breast cancer survivor. And father John – who spent some 40 years in real estate – is battling stage IV brain cancer. For now, Mike lives with his parents so that he can assist his father especially, driving him to appointments and working in other ways to ease his burden.
He says that's his nature, and he's happy to assist not only family, but friends and even complete strangers.
"A couple of kids back in high school" used to tease Mike about his handicap, he says. And then there are those who think he sometimes lets people lean on him for too much at times.
That smile again.
"It's OK," he says, shrugging off how if someone has a flat tire or needs car work, he's up to the task. "I enjoy being that go-to person."
Here's to KTC, for continuing to dignify all workplaces. And to Mike Alanowski, for embracing what it means to possess a servant's heart.