This fall, Charlie Kern, a senior at Grafton, N.D., High School, took on a project which has bolstered his confidence and gave him job skills that will serve him well into the future. It was no small feat, said his mother, Janice Kern.
Charlie, 18, is autistic.
He was diagnosed with autism at age 2, so interacting with people or being in large groups is not easy for him.
On Wednesday, Nov. 13, Kern and others who’ve known Charlie for years marveled at seeing him stand up in front of a couple hundred people for a group photo, marking World Kindness Day, in the school gym.
Everyone in the group -- including teachers, administrators, the kitchen crew, janitors, paraprofessionals, secretaries, bus drivers -- was wearing the T-shirt, with the message, “Be Kind to Everyone.”
They received the shirts from Charlie. It was his way of thanking them for helping him during his years as a student at the Grafton school, Kern said.
More than 200 Grafton school staff members received T-shirts that were provided by Janice Kern’s friend, Jackie Moore, of Atlanta, Ga., who also is the mother of a child with autism.
The two women became friends through their involvement with the nonprofit organization, Talk About Curing Autism, or TACA, Kern said. They have since become TACA employees, working remotely.
They have much in common, with children nearly the same age who have autism, Kern said.
“Both of our kids have a lot of needs," said Kern, noting that both she and Moore work “to help our kids become independent and learn job skills."
“It’s been a ton of fun," she said.
It also has been a good experience for her other three boys -- ages 19, 17 and 14 -- to watch Charlie tackle the project, she said.
“It was fun for them to see him shine like that, and to see him working and meeting the high expectations we set for him," Kern said.
Practicing job skills
Last year, Moore was looking for a way to keep her daughter busy during the summer months, when there is no school, by practicing new job skills, including packaging and organizing T-shirts for a project they dubbed “Jordyn’s Summer Shirt Project.”
“They were hoping to sell 40 T-shirts, but it just exploded,” Kern said. “They have sold thousands; they have sold shirts in every state.”
Last spring, Moore visited Grafton and gave age-appropriate presentations on autism to all students in the school.
Moore was so warmly received that she decided to donate the T-shirts -- in maroon, Grafton’s school color -- so Charlie also could benefit from a similar learning experience, Kern said.
In carrying out the project, he gathered the orders for T-shirts, took sizes, folded and packaged the T-shirts, and delivered them to each staff person, Kern said.
“He had to have conversations with staff, which is hard for him,” she said. “We’ve been surprised by the things he does well. We realized there’s something new every time we’ve given him an opportunity.
“Just to take the picture today is an undertaking.”
It proves the truth of something she learned from other families who are involved in TACA, she said.
“Always presume competence," she said.
Ethan Suda, 16, a sophomore at Grafton High School, also was diagnosed with autism as a child and had high praise for Charlie and his work on this project.
“It’s great,” Suda said. “He came a long way.”
The T-shirts “give a good positive message,” he said. “It’s a way (for people) to see autism in a new way.”
Grafton school students and staff seem to be knowledgeable about and sensitive to the needs of students with autism.
“The school has been very supportive,” Kern said, noting that, at one point, there were four children with autism in Charlie’s grade.
Suda said he hasn’t experienced bullying.
“People have been really accepting,” he said. “People are supportive. I have lots of friends who understand. They’ve all been supportive, really caring.”
Banner reinforces message
Also, this week, Charlie handed out “Be Kind to Everyone” items at his parents’ dental office, where a large banner, adorned with that phrase, is on display, said Kern, noting that Charlie works in that office in the summer.
The banner is one of 15 that were sent to schools and businesses around the country in time for World Kindness Day, she said.
“People can come in and take photos with the large banner and post them to Jordyn’s social media sites,” she said.
Kern is also accepting nominations and will make a selection regarding where the banner will be sent once it leaves Grafton after World Kindness Day, she said.
“Anyone can submit a nomination to help get the banner sent to the next school or business," she said. “There have been hundreds of requests from schools and businesses that want to receive the banner."
Along with other parents, Kern hopes the same things for her children.
“Every parent wants the best, healthiest, most successful lives for their children,” said Kern, adding that the end of a high school career “is a scary time for parents.”
Wondering what Charlie will do after graduation “is all we talk about, it’s all we think about, it’s what keeps us up at night,” Kern said.
She is thrilled, and surprised, by what this T-shirt project has brought out in Charlie.
“It was a great way for him to be able to not only practice job skills, but to give something to so many people who have been a huge part of his journey to his final year of high school,” Kern said.
It was also a way for her son to spread the message of kindness, she said.