This is the second of three stories about special education student, Jim Holt. Read the first story here.
Islander Middle School student Jim Holt, who died suddenly late last month at age 16, was a severely disabled special needs student. He was born with chromosomal abnormalities that left him both mentally and physically damaged. He needed constant care. He had little vision and was unable to speak. But over the years, his presence drew hundreds of caregivers, friends and admirers into his life.
Over 400 people attended his funeral at the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church.
Many called themselves members of ‘Team Jim,’ a group of friends, caregivers and supporters of Jim and his family; his mother Kathy Holt, his brother, Thomas Holt, his father, Steve Holt and stepmother Pattie Holt and her grown children.
Despite his challenges, Jim was able to learn and communicate with others. Jim formed strong relationships with his caregivers without speaking.
Jim drew others to him. School district staff from administrators to para-pros learned how to communicate and innovate in order to reach Jim. They were deliberate about including him in the life of the school.
Through the efforts of his parents, teachers and fellow students, both adults and students were drawn to Jim and to helping other students with special needs.
The staff at Islander Middle School still speaks of Jim in the first person.
His teacher, Julie Riccio, is bereft.
Riccio and the staff who worked with Jim do not speak of his disabilities. Instead they laugh and tell stories about what he accomplished.
His school day was both ordinary and extraordinary, given his circumstances. He rode the bus, like other students. He came to his classroom with chores to do. It might be working with his friend, Sydney Elston, to take roll by pressing buttons on a slate with pictures of fellow students or collecting the mail for his teacher.
Next, he rode his bright green custom-built bike with his feet strapped firmly into the pedals, on a circuit through the IMS school hallways. It was part of his daily regimen to put in a mile on the bike.
It helped the strengthen his lungs, Riccio said.
But it also allowed Jim to make himself known to staff and students throughout the building. He was not a quiet or shy student. He expressed himself loudly.
IMS Principal Mary Jo Budzius said, “Jim was so much a part of our school. Now, it is just too quiet around here without him.”
“He was everywhere,” she said. “And if he fell, he would get up and go on.”
Back in his classroom, there was read-aloud time and music. He attended the regular choir class, school assemblies, went to lunch with his friends, Jeffery and Tommy, and basked in the attention of his peer mentors.
He liked to lay on the floor with his legs outstretched. Soon after he would be positioned on a blanket or a mat, he might pull himself over to the doorway, just as a principal or visitor might pass by.
Once a week, Jim and the other students from his classroom would walk or wheel down to the QFC store at the South end shopping center, where they would shop for ‘healthy snacks.’ They had bright yellow ponchos to wear on rainy days.
His mental development was of an infant less than a year old. But Jim had 16 years of experience to build on, Riccio said.
Before his four years at the middle school, Jim was a student at Island Park Elementary School, and he perfected pulling himself up off the floor by hanging onto a chair or a table and walking a few steps.
He might ‘chase’ his special education teacher, Kristy Kenyon around the tables.
“It was always so fun to see how far he would go to ‘get me,’” she wrote to his family of her memories of having him in her classroom.
“In what would normally be a simple game, I know Jim used everything he had to keep up,” she said.
Kenyon and para-pro Jim Berrington (aka Big Jim) helped him transition to middle school, training the staff there and easing ‘Little Jim’ into his new classroom. Kenyon remembers that Little Jim was always calm when Big Jim was with him.
“Big Jim would always be talking with him,” she said.
Holly Pratt remembers Jim from her time working at Island Park. She fed him (through a gastrostomy tube or G-Tube) and ferried him to recess.
“All the other kids loved Jim,” she wrote. “Many would come up to him and grab his hand and talk to him — particularly the girls. In his special way, I know he loved the attention,” Pratt said.
At the middle school, para-pro Kamma Scott was hired for just an hour a day to help out at the resource room. Jim was the first student she met and worked with. Within the week, they added two more hours for her to work. She began to ride the school bus with Jim to and from school every day. She is now full-time. “I am hooked now,” she said of her job.
“Every time I was with Jim, I felt good about myself,” she said. “I knew I was making a difference.”
Both she and others agreed that despite his challenges, he was both independent and strong.
“He was his own person,” they said.
Nikki Dellinger, a certified special education teacher, said she was a little apprehensive at first about working with Jim. She knew he had a set of complex medical issues.
Yet she soon found out that Jim was not breakable. He was present and able to communicate.
Jim made people feel like they were valued without demanding that much attention. He was not a high-needs student, but he would let you know what he wanted or needed, she explained.
Jim’s friend, Sydney, knew what is was like to be someone different.
“Like Jim, I am different,” said Elston, who has a form of autism. “I know what it is like to be different.”
Sydney was often Jim’s ‘AAA chauffeur,’” she said, guiding his wheelchair down to QFC on Friday afternoons.
She noted that Jim was just learning how to do a fist bump.
She will miss him.
Friends and peers like Sydney are an important part of the special education program at Islander.
Scott and para-pro Megan Atkinson pointed to Riccio as the one who started the student mentoring program at the school, and has made it into a success.
“It has become the ‘cool’ class, the most popular class,” they agreed.
There are 37 students who have applied to be in the class this trimester alone, Riccio said.
The peer mentorship program has had many benefits. It teaches patience and empathy.
It has become a way to build support and advocacy for special needs students.
And for middle school kids, it was one period a day when you don’t have to judge yourself, Riccio noted.
He was a strong, determined soul. He made you feel grateful for what you have.
Riccio credits the school administrators for being supportive of all special needs students. “They are always finding ways for things to happen, how to include my kids,” she said.
Programs at the middle school in areas such as music and art, and even science, are tweaked to include everyone.
And she credits the constant involvement and caring of Jim’s family.
Every fall and many times in between, Kathy Holt would come to train the staff in her son’s care, how to feed him through a tube every two hours, and how to deal with a seizure or a crisis.
Even on the morning of her son’s funeral, Kathy Holt came by to visit with many of the staff involved in Jim’s life.
“She was worried about us,” Riccio said.
His father Steve Holt and stepmother, Pattie, came by a few days later to give Riccio a special gift. It is a baby blanket that had belonged to Jim. It was a gift for her first child, due in May.