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Spotlight on Success: Aaron's Story


When Special Tree’s Vocational Arts Program began in 2014, client Aaron L. was skeptical about participating. He’d always wanted to try painting, but worried that he couldn’t hold a brush steady due to severe hand tremors that resulted from a brain injury he sustained in 2008. “I wasn’t sure what I could do.”

But all that changed when Aaron finally worked up the courage to give it a try. “I really surprised myself by how much I love to paint,” he said. Program coordinator Ed Meese, who is also a professional artist, showed him techniques for controlling the brush and also tricks of the trade to draw straight lines. “Ed made it easy to figure out how to paint.” Aaron paints twice a week in Special Tree’s art studio, but also spends many hours painting on his own and researching future works. “I enjoy it because it eases my mind and helps me focus.”

Not only is painting having a positive impact on Aaron, it’s also helping him to earn a paycheck.

According to Meese, Special Tree’s Vocational Arts Program is unique because it combines the therapeutic benefits of art -making in a vocational rehabilitation setting. “Through the process of creating art, clients like Aaron experience self-expression and a sense of accomplishment while also developing concrete skills for future employment in the community.” Clients have the opportunity to earn an hourly wage during their time in the studio and to sell their work at local art fairs and online throughout the year. And because the program is therapeutically-based, it can be tailored to meet each participant’s needs, interests, and skills.

Since participating in the program, Meese and others have seen big changes in Aaron. “Aaron’s communication and social skills have greatly improved,” said Meese. “He can dialog about his art and when he makes a mistake or when someone doesn’t like his work, he doesn’t let it upset him.” Brooke Parker who works with Aaron in Special Tree’s Day Treatment Services feels that art enhances his quality of life and improves his outlook. “It’s really opened him up. He’s good at it and it’s something personal that he gets to make.”

Aaron also participates in other paid work experiences at Special Tree’s Industrial Operations Center in Wayne and the greenhouse at the NeuroCare Center in Romulus. He would like to eventually work in the community, but for now he’s working hard on improving skills, building self-confidence, and making art.



Go Team!

Special Tree is delighted to earn another spot on the Detroit Free Press 2015 Top Workplaces list for the
sixth straight year.

The list, published in a special section of the Freep on November 22, 2015, recognizes the top 100 Michigan
companies and is based entirely on how employees feel about their workplace. Special Tree staff members
were among thousands of employees in Michigan who took an independent survey to rate their company’s
performance on direction, execution, career, conditions, managers, and pay & benefits. High survey scores
and positive written comments from staff members helped Special Tree to rank #20 in the large-employer
category. Our staff’s survey comments praised Special Tree’s leadership, caring work environment, staff
training program, and strong teamwork.

“It’s truly an honor that our staff continues to recognize Special Tree as a Top Workplace year after year,”
said Kate McClain,Director of Workforce Engagement. “It reinforces our efforts to create an environment
where people give their very best and feel their work is important and valuable."

Client is Back on the Airwaves with the Right Mix of Supports

We’re so proud of Kevin, aka DJ Polo, who is back on the air at FM 98 WJLB, Detroit’s top-rated hip-hop and R & B station, after a long recovery from a brain injury he sustained in 2011.

For many Special Tree clients like Kevin, returning to work is an important part of the rehabilitation process.  Whether it’s returning to a former profession, exploring new jobs in the community, or developing job skills in a supported work-environment, Special Tree supports our clients’ employment goals with a wide range of vocational rehabilitation services that are customized to meet their specific needs, interests, and skills.

After two years of intensive rehabilitation at Special Tree, Kevin started working with Special Tree Vocational Specialists to help him return to his job at WJLB, where he was a popular DJ.  “Kevin had made big strides in his recovery, but still had challenges to overcome to make a successful transition back to the station,” said Rene Dell, Associate Director of Vocational Services.

According to Rene, the key to achieving the best employment outcomes for clients is having a very clear picture of each person’s strengths, skills, interests, and capabilities. “We make sure to ask clients all the right questions during our vocational assessments so we can customize a rehabilitation plan that meets their specific needs and goals,” she said.

With Kevin’s input, the team crafted his rehabilitation plan to include one-on-one vocational counseling as well as a job coach at the radio station to provide the right mix of supports to get him back on the air and doing what he does best.

Prior to his injury, Kevin’s job was making DJ mixes for radio play, which he now found difficult.  “Kevin basically had to start from scratch to relearn every step of the mixing process,” said Job Coach Sara Lunsten-Allingham, who accompanied Kevin to the station once a week to practice in the studio.  To support Kevin, Sara learned all she could about mixing and works regularly with both Kevin and Kim James, WJLB DJ Supervisor. “It was frustrating but Special Tree helped me a lot,” said Kevin. “I also learned by listening to my co-worker’s mixes, they’re pretty good.”

It was a long process, but after a year Kevin was recording mixes for the station part-time with minimal support from Sara and Kim.  Kevin’s mixes got better and better and in 2014, he started mixing for a weekly show on WJLB on Saturdays from 10pm – 2am, now ranked as the top radio show in Detroit during the timeslot.  Tune in!


George's Story

George G’s song began when he took an interest in music at just five-years-old, and that song has been with him ever since.

From church to school, George played his trumpet everywhere. He was devoted to the instrument, and when it came time to select a place of higher learning, he enrolled at the University of Michigan, managing to enter the competitive Michigan Marching Band. All the while, continuously scoring high grades towards his Aerospace Engineering degree.

One day, in the summer of George’s freshman year in 2011, the music stopped.

“I was on my way to help my dad with a tire change on the highway when the accident happened,” said George. “My car hit the side of a trailer, which flipped a Bobcat earth mover onto my car. By that time my dad already got help. He was retracing my route because I didn’t pick up my phone and actually came across the scene of the accident.”

Critically-injured, George was airlifted to a nearby hospital where medical scans revealed multiple fractures, including a shattered arm and extensive leg injuries.  When George’s cognitive functioning began to rapidly decline a week later, he was diagnosed with a severe brain injury.  After undergoing 10 surgeries, including two brain surgeries, and intensive sub-acute rehabilitation, George was discharged from the hospital to begin the next phase of his recovery at an inpatient facility.

His family’s search for high quality neurorehabilitation and care led them to Special Tree’s NeuroCare Campus in Romulus, where George was transferred in November 2011.

 “We were so fortunate to find Special Tree,” said Connie G., George’s mother.   “I remember another young man who was admitted to the hospital at about the same time as George, and he didn’t have the same options that we did because he was not in Michigan when he was injured. That young man’s recovery was very different because he wasn’t able to go to a place like Special Tree.”

When George arrived at Special Tree, he was still on a ventilator and in a state of waking sleep.  He maintained basic motor skills like standing with assistance, but had little cognitive awareness. To help George achieve the best outcome possible, Special Tree’s highly specialized therapy team developed an integrated rehabilitation plan that addressed his specific needs and care.  Therapists also assured George’s family that everyone would need to work together as a team – family and Special Tree staff – to help George through his recovery.

“That was so comforting to hear, especially after little stumbles or incidents,” said Connie. “I had no idea how much therapists did here. The speech therapists helped him do more than just speech – they helped him learn to swallow and tolerate water and food.”

With the right rehabilitation plan in place and a strong circle of support, George made steady progress in his recovery, and finally regained cognitive awareness during a physical therapy session in the Spring of 2012.   However, he was now painfully sensitive to light, touch, and sounds which interfered with his rehabilitation.   “When you have a brain injury, the way you respond to tactile sensation can be confusing.  Things that are normally not interpreted as painful like pressure, can be interpreted by the brain as painful,” said Gavin Milner, Physical Therapist.

Therapists slowly increased George’s tolerance to stimuli through sensory integration therapy to help reduce constant pain and discomfort.  With his sensory challenges under control, George was able to fully participate in Special Tree’s wide range of rehabilitation services and programs including inpatient, outpatient, residential, day treatment, and vocational rehabilitation.

George was now more determined that ever to get better and impressed everyone at Special Tree with his drive to do whatever was needed to accomplish his therapy goals.  “Whether it was building back his ability to use his hand or improve his memory and attention, George was always ready for anything,“ said Milner.  So when the Michigan Marching Band invited him back to play trumpet as a volunteer, he accepted without hesitation.  George’s song was beginning once again.  With just a few months to prepare for the band’s grueling summer practices, George and his multi-disciplinary team worked closely together to improve the skills he’d need to be successful at band camp including endurance, strength, coordination, concentration, and memory.

“George’s doctor signed off on the camp thinking it would be a few hours a day, but he ended practicing from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and did great,”  said Connie.  “He’s very serious about it and that focus helped bring his concentration back. One time a bee managed to fly up his pant leg while he was marching, but he didn’t stop to swat it, even after it stung him. He just kept marching and playing.”

By the fall of 2014, George had made such great strides in his recovery that he was discharged from Special Tree, although he’s the first to say that his recovery is ongoing and long-term.   He now attends Washtenaw Community College with the hopes of one day rejoining his peers at the University of Michigan and is still an active participant in the Michigan Marching Band.

“You have to remain hopeful and never give up on what you want to do,” said George. “At first my mom had to help me when I moved around the house, but now I can walk around like it was nothing. The thing is that you have to stick with it and keep going. It might seem like a long time, and it is, but in the greater sense it’s not. I can’t believe it’s been four years, but you just can’t ever give up.”

Students Flying High on Airport Tour

Students from Discover Summer were flying high after spending the day touring the Detroit Metro Airport with representatives from Delta Airlines.

“Many of our students have never been on a plane before, so the tour was a great way to introduce them to air travel,” said Anjie Dorsey, Special Tree Recreational Therapist.  The airport tour is just one of many educational community outings organized by Special Tree’s Recreational Therapists for the Discover Summer program.

The tour began with presentations from TSA agents, a pilot, the K-9 unit, flight attendants, ticket counter agents, porters, and the Complaint Resolution Official (CRO) Department, who organized the tour.  “The kids asked a lot of great questions and demonstrated perfect behavior,” added Dorsey.

The next stop was security where students discovered why travelers need to get to the airport early!  The students waited in line, removed shoes, belts, etc. as any traveler would and learned about how the Delta team assists individuals with special needs throughout their travel experience.

Delta Airlines saved the best for last as the tour wrapped up on board a 747 where kids toured the cockpit and got to sit in first class. “The really cool thing is, the plane we toured was actually heading to Frankfurt Germany,” said Dorsey.  “The Delta team was exceptionally prepared, organized, and kind to our group.”

The tour got rave reviews from students, especially client Kaylynn who said it was one of the best community outings so far this summer.  “It was fun, I really liked it,” she said. Kaylynn’s tour highlights were meeting dogs from the K-9 unit and learning about a special wheelchair that fits in the aisle of the plane.

“It was such a great experience for the kids,” said Dorsey.  “Even though we didn't actually fly anywhere, you would have thought different by the exclamations from the kids when describing their experience!”

Just Keep Swimming!

Aquatic therapy is a big part of our Discover Summer program for kids and teens with brain injury.  Every week, staff and kids from our Romulus and Troy programs head to the local pool to take advantage of the many therapeutic benefits of swimming and playing in the water.   Here’s a quick snapshot of what kids are learning while they splish, splash, dive, and swim at the pool.

  • Staff reinforce poolside and water safety.
  • Kids have the opportunity to acclimate and gain water confidence in an encouraging setting.
  • Time in the pool helps to increase kid’s cardiovascular endurance, strengthen muscles, and improve gross-motor skill functioning.
  • Water play is a positive leisure activity that can help reduce stress.
  • Water activities promote positive interactions with peers.
  • Kids focus on dressing, personal hygiene, and grooming.

Who's Ready for Summer!

Discover Summer 2015, Special Tree’s therapeutic program for kids and teens with brain injuries, starts in less than a week!  We can’t wait to see the students and have so many amazing activities and outings planned for the summer. We’re also excited to show students all the great amenities at our new location at the NeuroCare Campus in Romulus, including our greenhouse, fishing pond, indoor therapy pool, walking trails, state-of-the-art therapy clinic, vocational rehabilitation programs, and the nearby MetroParks. We’re looking forward to a fun-filled summer. Bring on the kids!  Discover Summer 2015 runs from June 15th - August 21st at Special Tree's Romulus and Troy locations.  Read more.


Go InPro!

The holiday season was full of good cheer for vocational artisans at Special Tree who sold a record number of their handcrafted works at various local events.  Holiday shoppers swooped up affordably priced furniture, ceramics, jewelry, birdhouses, cutting boards, and dried organic herbs – all handmade by clients through InPro Enterprises, Special Tree’s vocational rehabilitation program that helps ease individuals with brain injury and other severe disabilities back to work.

Clients and vocational support staff kicked off their holiday sales season at  Re:Con, an annual conference for rehabilitation professionals in Michigan which includes a Micro Enterprise Mall for small local businesses.  “This was our fifth year at the Micro Enterprise Mall so our clients have built up a large base of repeat customers,” said Rene Dell, Special Tree Associate Director of Vocational Services.  Conference attendees purchased $800 worth of handmade items, an InPro sales record.  “The clients always get such great feedback on their products,” she said.  “Our booth has become so popular that conference organizers doubled our booth space at the Mall this year.”

In addition to a very successful holiday sale just for Special Tree staff, clients also had a unique opportunity to sell their wares at the D:Hive Small Business Saturday Bazaar held on November 29, 2014 in Detroit.  “We had a great turnout with a lot of networking done with other small businesses around the metro Detroit area,” said Rene.   InPro Enterprises also got some air time on WXYZ-TV, who broadcast an interview from the event with Joe Richert, II, Special Tree Director of Community Rehabilitation Services, and Daniel, a client in the vocational program.  Watch the news clip here:

Now in it’s fifth year, InPro Enterprises helps clients to develop valuable job skills through meaninful work experiences. Clients work one-on-one with a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor who identify a client's abilities, interests, and goals to create an individualized vocational rehabilitation plan.  InPro offers clients a wide range of hands-on, paid vocational job programs to choose including working in Special Tree’s on-site creative arts and woodworking studios, at our new greenhouse that provides year-round opportunities to grow and produce, herbs and flowers, and at an industrial operations center that provides light manufacturing services for local businesses.

“Work helps us all expand our skills, improve our health, and feel valued, respected, connected to others, and satisfied with all we do,” said director Joe Richert, II.  “At InPro, our goal is to make that possible for everyone.”

To learn more, please visit InPro’s website at:   While you’re there, be sure to check out the Products page where you can view and purchase  artwork created by our clients in the art studio.

Go Team! Special Tree Earns Fifth Top Workplace Award

For the fifth straight year, Special Tree has earned a spot on the Top Workplaces list compiled by the Detroit Free Press.  We’re delighted with our #20 ranking in the large-sized business category, our first year in this category, which also included well-known companies such as Quicken Loans, Plante Moran, Kelly Services, Dominos Pizza, and more. The list recognizes 100 employers in the region whose workers completed an independent survey about their level of satisfaction in the workplace, including pay and benefits, advancement opportunities, flexibility of schedules and other advantages.   

“It’s truly an honor that our staff thought us deserving of this recognition,” said Kate McClain, Special Tree’s Director of Workforce Engagement.  “It reinforces our efforts to create an environment where people give their very best and feel their work is important and valuable."

Here’s what some of our staff had to say on the survey about working at Special Tree:

"Love working with our clients. Good company with good values and good intentions."

"I like the culture here and that the management seem like they have their heart in the right place.  It’s a fun environment."

"I enjoy watching the clients progress here at Special Tree.  I feel like I make a difference when I get to see the clients work hard and finally get to go home to their families."

BIAMI Conference 2014

Pictured from the left are CFO Jim Hall, Brand Manager Jen Atwood, Senior Rehab Services Rep. Mike Malley, Rehab Service Rep. Rabecca Planchette, President & CEO Joe Richert, Mid-Michigan Area Manager Julie Campbell, Community Rehab Specialist Jim Hankamp, Rehab Service Rep. Maleigh Ruddy, Communications Specialist Jenny Haggerty and Executive Director of Business Development.

The 2014 Brain Injury Association of Michigan annual conference on September 11 & 12 was host to a record number of attendees this year, and Special Tree arrived in Lansing with style.
Thanks to the fabulous work of Bill Fritz and Jim Richert of the facilities team, Special Tree introduced a new exhibit display at our booth designed to highlight our 40th Anniversary. Our booth, ad, packet inserts and promotional SWAG were themed around the “40 Years and Still Growing” campaign. Our display even incorporated an 11’ foot live tree that was later planted along the entry road to the Romulus NeuroCare Campus and 500 flower bulbs that Special Tree handed out over the two-day event.
Vice President Jack Richert was already sharing Special Tree give-aways with attendees when the conference opened while Senior Rehabilitation Services Representative Mike Malley chatted with curious visitors at the booth.
Special Tree staff and clients mingled with industry friends, colleagues and the various vendors, eventually making their way to the keynote speech by Lee Woodruff, author of the book In an Instant which is about her experience as a caregiver for her husband Bob Woodruff; a former co-anchor for ABC World News Tonight who sustained a TBI during his coverage of the war in Iraq.
After the keynote, attendees participated in breakout sessions presented by leading TBI experts including Special Tree physicians Jennifer Doble, MD, and Corina Lazar, MD, (upper right), Learning Systems Manager Mary Jo Hall, BA, CBIST, and Nutritionists Jill Prisza, RD, CNSC, CBIS, and Brahmlin Sethi, RD.
“The annual BIAMI conference is one of the most important venues for Michigan-based brain injury focused companies like us. We had five presenters from Special Tree this year which is an honor and an indication of how committed our employees are to this field.,” said CEO Joe Richert.
Thank you speakers and attendees of Special Tree, and a big thanks to staff who accompanied our clients.

   Pictured from top left to bottom right: Vice Pres. Jack Richert shares give-aways with interested attendees; Senior HR Specialist LaShawn Slay and Learning Systems Manager Mary Jo Hall pose in front of the new booth backdrop; Special Tree physicians Corina Lazar, MD, and Jennifer Doble, MD both spoke at the conference; Senior RSR Mike Malley talks industry friends and partners;Keynote Speaker Lee Woodruff shares the story of her husband Bob Woodruff; and Rec. Therapist Kristen Pyles and Vocational Specialist Sara Lundsten chat with Keynote Speaker Kevin Pearce.