Back To School & Special Needs: What I Learned


We adopted our daughter, Ani, from a Bulgarian orphanage when she was six years old. At the time, her deficits were so severe and so overwhelming, we were lost on how to help her or even where to start. Ani came to us without  language, without social skills and without curiosity. One thing that Ani did bring with her was a warm, determined spirit. She refused to give up on anything and her tenacity has helped her navigate through some tough times.  Thankfully, we found therapists, agencies and resources that assisted her and supported us.

Ani is 20 years old now, but I remember her first days of school. I brought Ani home on August 11, 2003 and I thought it would be best if she went to kindergarten in September. After all, she had just arrived from an orphanage, so I thought that being around other children would be familiar to her. She would be immersed in the English language; she would learn social skills from the other students; she would learn how to “do” school. This would be a perfect situation.


Unfortunately, during this time, Ani and I were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both of us had gone through an incredible journey, one in which we were totally unprepared or equipped to cope. Ani left the only life she had ever known and was thrust into something foreign and at times, frightening. While I, in turn, could not alleviate the guilt I felt in “destroying” my family. You see, we had been told by the adoption agency that Ani was “fine,” and in truth, I had pushed for the adoption. My husband, Mike, wasn’t disinterested in the idea, but wasn’t as pursuant toward it as I was. Upon arriving home, it was obvious something was very wrong. I spent the next year crying and apologizing to my husband for doing “this” to him and apologizing to our 10-year-old son, Max, for ruining our happy home.

As Ani began school, I took a leave of absence from my job as an English teacher to attend school with her. Due to her lack of mental and physical strength (she weighed only 23 pounds upon arrival) she went to school half-days. To build the bond between us and to support her transition, I sat near her in class and walked with her from one class to another.

I attended school with Ani for about four weeks. During that time, I learned how I would need to prepare her for the remainder of her elementary and middle school years so she felt comfortable, organized and confident. Here is a list of things I learned along the way:

1) I met with Ani’s IEP caseworker and classroom teacher to share her quirks. As an example, Ani had a variety of stimming behaviors (rocking, rapid finger movements, burping, hitting her chest) she would use to test her teachers. I wanted teachers to know what to do when she would use them.

2) About two weeks before school started, Ani would practice packing her lunch and packing her backpack. We would put her lunch in the fridge and put her backpack by the back door. I wanted the morning to be effortless, so organization was crucial to the simplicity.

3) Two weeks before school began; I received permission to enter the school building. Every day, Ani and I walked to school. She would carry her backpack, filled with her school supplies and lunch. Once we arrived at school, we walked the hallways. We went to the cafeteria, the library, the bathrooms and the offices.

4) When Ani began middle school, she had her own locker. The guidance counselor suggested Ani wear a key around her neck to open her locker instead of learning a combination. However because our goal was to always treat Ani like a typical child, we began practicing her locker combination several weeks prior to school beginning. As a result, by the time school began, Ani knew how to open her locker.

This preparedness gave her a sense of comfort and the rest of us a sense of relief!

I am proud to say 15 years later, we have survived and thrived. Ani graduated in 2015 with her class. We chose not to have her stay in school until she was 21 for several reasons: first, we had always told Ani that upon graduation, she would work. It was discussed as an expectation, not an option. Second, we didn’t want her to become bored doing busy academic work in school; and finally, it was assumed she would graduate with her class and walk across the stage on time.

In Ani’s sophomore year, we heard about a program called Project Search. According to Easter Seals, which sponsors this remarkable opportunity, “The Project Search High School Transition Program is a unique, business led, one year school-to-work program that takes place entirely at the workplace. Total workplace immersion facilitates a seamless  combination of classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on training through worksite rotations.” We knew we had to learn more and do what we could to get Ani into this program. We toured Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, one of the four sites offering Project Search, several times. We began completing the mound of required paperwork nearly six months before it was due. Ani needed a physical examination, three letters of reference and a resume. In addition, her teachers, school counselor and school psychologist were asked to complete reports. Finally, Ani had to complete a series of questions that required several rewrites.

We submitted Ani’s paperwork and waited for the telephone interview. We practiced answering the phone and responding to questions clearly, slowly and with focus. After Ani successfully completed the telephone interview, she earned a one-on-one interview. We received the interview questions ahead of time, and spent the next two weeks, 20 minutes every day, practicing the questions and possible responses. Finally, Ani had her in-person interview. Due to our relentless practice, the interview went exceedingly well.

In April of 2015, Ani received the phone call that she had been accepted to Project Search. We were overjoyed! While Ani seemed excited, I don’t think she truly understood the wonderful opportunity she earned. But, she did understand that she would have to wear a “uniform.” Because she would be working at Children’s Hospital, she would need five sets of scrubs. She was so excited to pick out her scrubs and choose suitable patterns: Winnie the Pooh, Elmo from Sesame Street and fun holiday themes.

Ani began her first rotation in September of 2016. She worked as a lab aide where she was taught to follow workplace directions and be a team-player all within the specific duties of the job. Her next rotation was in Orthopedics where along with the soft skills she had learned in the previous rotation, she sanitized the waiting room, refilled the snacks and folded the sheets and gowns. Ani’s final rotation was in Pediatric ICU. This particular rotation had Ani on a  hospital floor where, along with the reinforcement of soft skills, she learned how to professionally behave among the littlest patients.

Ani was continually coached by a supervisor, so she was never expected to do any of this work without explicit, intensive support. During the first month of the program, all interns were in “class” where they read and discussed the employee handbook and had in-depth conversations about workplace rules and expectations. When the interns began their first rotations, all of them were prepared and excited to begin their work.

Ani graduated from Project Search on June 2, 2016. We are proud to say she was offered a job at Children’s Hospital and is working as a lab assistant with her colleagues from her first rotation. She began her job on June 2 and works 16.5 hours a week.

The school-to-work journey has been fraught with challenges, frustrations and successes. We have learned how to network, listen and advocate even more tirelessly for our gal. Recently, we were asked by Easter Seals to be the Parent Representatives for Children’s Hospital. Within this role, we will coordinate along with the other parent representatives, parent meetings, workshops and activities for the betterment of our children and their occupational endeavors. In addition, we will plan outings for former interns and current interns to build friendships while  practicing their social skills.

While we have grown wiser as parents and as advocates, the real star of this show is Ani. Her dedication and desire to work has always been a part of who she is. Whether she is doing her chores at home or measuring fetal bovine serum into test tubes, she is excited to go to work and thrilled to be part of a team. She understands that she is doing important work and the team needs her to do her part. Isn’t that what we hope for each of us? •

Peg Grafwallner adopted Ani from a Bulgarian orphanage when she was five years, 11 months. Not knowing what to do or where to go for assistance, her family began a journey to learn, ask and eventually educate. There were  extremely dark times when they felt completely alone. But, Ani’s inspiring smile and beautiful spirit has kept the family grounded.

Leave a Reply