The Northville-based Living and Learning Enrichment Center offers a space for teens and adults with autism to gain social, job and life skills.
By Karen Dybis
Photography by Alyssa Lopatin
Rachelle Vartanian knows the look. Parents new to the Living and Learning Enrichment Center arrive at the Northville headquarters for teens and adults with autism, anxiety or attention deficit disorders knotted by years of fear and worry.
Vartanian sits with them inside the homey kitchen, makes them coffee and lays out the facts. Yes, their son or daughter faces challenges others do not. But they also have the opportunity to enjoy a well-rounded life with friends, satisfying work and community support.
Hope is real, she tells them. More importantly, Vartanian believes it.
For the past four years, Vartanian and a crew of parents, donors, board members and volunteers have helped more than 600 people at the Living and Learning Enrichment Center. They’ve laughed, cried and found their way toward hope for the ones they love who once were institutionalized or ignored but now can develop into people of character and potential.
“This is the reality of our world — we have so many people who need assistance with social and job skills,” Vartanian says. “We can help them here.”
It’s a message Vartanian, 49, delivers with conviction, made possible by seeing her own son’s development since his diagnosis of autism as a child. It’s also because she has nurtured the Living and Learning Enrichment Center to become a space that is as much fun as it’s functional.
There are jam sessions by teens who dream of rock stardom. There are messy painting parties for future artists. There is a quiet room where people can talk honestly and openly. There are backyard proms with young men and women who seek love, just like everyone else.
“They have so much to offer,” agrees AnnMarie Evans of Van Buren Township, whose 23-year-old daughter Delaney attends the center to take her beloved art classes. “As a parent, I was trying anything. Kids with autism seem to cease to exist once they reach 18; there’s so little out there for them. … The center gives my daughter a sense of purpose. She loves going there.”
Vartanian believes the nonprofit is at the cusp of becoming a model for helping people with disabilities find fulfillment. Her goal now is to add an artist market, grow into a larger campus where she can create a farm, gardens and job-training centers as well as help foster independence among a cohort that struggles with issues surrounding employment, mobility and more.
It’s a dream that needs fundraising, many volunteers and lots of help. Vartanian know she will get there — and she wants to build additional programs around Metro Detroit and beyond.
She has many dreamers on her side. Erik Maahs, a senior at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Novi, became a student mentor two years ago. The Northville resident says he has family members on the autistism spectrum, and he loves meeting new people. Volunteering enriches his own life along with those he meets.
“Rachelle does a wonderful job inspiring everyone who walks in those doors,” says Maahs, 18. “Every time I go, I meet new people, help them through different problems and learn how to be a friend. It’s super rewarding.”
Vartanian’s own story is one of a teacher. She has a bachelor’s degree in teaching for the emotionally impaired and worked at a youth detention center. To better understand her students, she went back to school and got her master’s degree in educational psychology.
Then, when her youngest son Anthony received his diagnosis, Vartanian did what she does best. She got to work. Vartanian began taking him to classes and support groups for parents and children with autism. She went back to school and got a master’s degree in autism spectrum disorders.
The Living and Learning Enrichment Center started as a weekly gathering at her local library where parents with children on the autism spectrum could talk, exchange resources and give support. The kids hung out, played and gained new skills.
It was an eye opener for Vartanian, who realized she could create her own program. She took an early retirement from her job as a special education teacher and opened a small storefront in Northville to host social gatherings and summer camps for teens and adults. She moved to a larger Victorian-style house on Griswold Street in 2018 and is already outgrowing the space. About 70 teens and adults use the center weekly, Vartanian says, so she has to cap some classes and events.
“I wanted to be in the heart of Northville because when I was a special ed teacher, I was always put in the back of the building. This location allows everyone to see us, to get comfortable (with autism) and know what it is,” Vartanian says.
Growing pains are familiar to Vartanian. Yet there are moments of pure joy, like when Vartanian sat with her youngest son recently to chat about a wedding he attended. He described how the best man made a toast to the couple, and Vartanian noted how someday he would do that for his older brother. “And one day that will be him giving a speech for me,” he replied.
“I had tears in my eyes,” Vartanian says. “Because I know we can do this.”
Living and Learning Enrichment Center
315 Griswold St., Northville