HOWARD CITY — When Tri County Area Schools started a program to provide support to students with autism, a middle-schooler volunteered to help.
He had no idea the program would change his own life.
Ben Behrenwald, 18, is preparing to graduate from Tri County High School on Thursday. As he looks back upon his formative years, he recalls how Tri County helped him make the adjustment from a struggling middle-schooler to a flourishing high-schooler.
Ben grew up on a farm in Lakeview, the son of Jerry and Brandi Behrenwald. He enjoyed wrestling from the age of 6, aided by the fact that his father was a freestyle wrestling coach.
When Ben began the sixth grade, he unexpectedly became depressed. He found the transition from elementary school to middle school difficult and overwhelming. A natural perfectionist, he was eventually diagnosed with ADHD — a personality combination of wanting to excel at everything and thus becoming crippled by the pressure.
“I’d come to school and would go hide in the bathrooms for awhile,” he recalled.
Ben was prescribed medication but he still didn’t feel like himself.
“I didn’t want to do anything,” he said. “I wasn’t the same person.”
When Ben started the seventh grade, middle school social worker Sue Darin and speech and language pathologist Corey Mead helped launch Tri County’s Peer To Peer program, which aims to educate students about autism and provide support to students on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Ben, who was still struggling, volunteered to help mentor his autistic peers at the suggestion of his social counselor. Ben was surprised by how much he enjoyed participating in the pilot program.
“There’s these kids you see growing up through school and you know they’re different,” Ben said. “We try to get them to experience the high school and middle school. They need to know how to interact with friends, how to talk to people, just basically how to blend in with everyone. I got to be part of something and watch them learn.
“That’s when I realized that I had an issue, but instead of thinking about my issues I was helping others with their issues,” he said. “I think that’s what saved me.”
Ben became close friends with Andrew Houghton and Collin Ostema through the program. They went to a Ferris State University hockey game, visited the farm and planned a special day at the lake every summer.
“Ben always looks out for our kids who have the social difficulties and does everything he can to involve them in conversation and goes above and beyond to support them in whatever they need,” Mead said. “Several of our ASD students look up to Ben. Many seek him out when they’re having challenging days. He is their security blanket. He is a wonderful young man who displays incredible patience and has a huge heart for these kids.”
Ben was recognized for his work in the program when he received the Make A Difference Award from the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District’s Parent Advisory Committee. Tri County’s Peer to Peer program now consists of about 20 students and has expanded to include kindergarten through high school.
Ben enjoyed a smooth transition to high school. Athletic commitments and classes at the Kent Career Technical Center kept him busy, but his friendships continued.
“I got to watch these kids grow as students and interact with other people and I could see myself grow with them,” Ben said.
“These kids are involved in sports now,” he exclaimed, noting Houghton was a manager for the basketball team and now manages the baseball team. “You can really see a huge difference in those guys.”
As Ben spoke, he waved to Ostema who was on his way out of the high school to a track meet. Ben told his friend he was talking about their friendship.
“I am a pretty cool guy,” Ostema said with a grin.
“Yeah, you are,” Ben laughed.
Ben has played golf and football at Tri County, but his first love will always be wrestling.
“The reason I love the sport is because it’s one on one,” he summarized. “There’s no one you can blame for a mistake. It’s up to you.”
Ben persevered to wrestle despite being plagued with multiple sports injuries throughout his school years.
An injury in middle school, followed by Tommy John surgery and eight months of recovery prevented him from wrestling his freshman year. The summer before his sophomore year, he snapped his collar bone while wrestling.
“I was wrestling the kid, I was beating him, and the next thing I knew I was unconscious,” he recalled. “As soon as I came to, my mom was standing over me and I said, ‘I’m done.’ But as soon as I healed, I said, ‘Back to wrestling I go.’”
Ben’s collarbone took all summer to heal and caused him pain throughout his sophomore year. He fared better his junior year, placing second at districts and regionals and fifth at state.
During Ben’s senior year, he suffered another setback, breaking his shoulder while wrestling. He still managed to place second at districts and regionals again and placed seventh at state.
Ben has a close bond with teacher Corey Renner, who coaches golf and wrestling.
“Ben is a model of what Tri County students should look like in the presence of public and community members,” Renner said. “He treats other people with respect and courtesy, always displays excellent behavior and always has a smile on his face. Most coaches from other schools know him at least a little bit, and all are impressed with his sportsmanship and the way that he carries himself with a sense of humility.”
Ben plans ago attend Ferris in the fall. He’s always enjoyed tinkering with engines and hopes to one day work as a heavy equipment technician.
Brandi Behrenwald has been busy preparing for her son’s open house, which will showcase themed tables in honor of sports and Peer To Peer, as well as a “bumps and bruises” table which Brandi laughingly says will detail her son’s extensive collection of injuries.
“He found himself at Tri County,” Brandi said. “He needed the Peer To Peer program just as much as the program needed him. He’s been where those kids are with different capabilities. He understands having a voice inside and not being able to express yourself. He helped give those kids a voice and they helped him. That program helped Ben find his true identity as to who he was as a person and to overcome his struggle.”