Rachelle Vartanian embarked on a lot of journeys with Living and Learning Enrichment Center, for tweens, teens, adults and senior citizens with autism and other developmental disabilities. Her recent venture was one of her biggest leaps.
She purchased the Don Massey estate, a 14-acre property straddling the Northville/Novi limits, to become the new campus, allowing the nonprofit to serve more people and expand the curriculum. The sale was finalized in January 2020 and an open house was held in October 2021.
Vartanian worked with emotionally impaired students in the Farmington School District when she decided to
get a master’s degree in educational psychology to better understand why many of her students had self-destructive behaviors. Around that time she started seeing signs of autism in her youngest son who was later diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Vartanian went back to school to get a second master’s degree, this time to study autism spectrum disorders to better understand her son’s needs.
Meanwhile, she had a hard time finding social skills programs for her son. So, she created her own group and held free meetings in the Farmington Public Library every Sunday for two years.
“I kept praying and thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’” she said.
Vartanian quit her job after being a special education teacher for 20 years. Selling her family home, drawing from retirement money and downsizing her lifestyle allowed her to launch Living and Learning. The first program she started was a Friday night hang-out for clients to have fun and learn social skills.
“They see their brothers and sisters go out to parties, and around third grade they aren’t invited to things anymore,” she said. “I wanted a place that was fun, cool and hip.”
She added Mod Market, an inclusive artesian market, gift shop and coffee bar for clients and others in downtown Northville. Fifty percent of the art sold at the market is made by Living and Learning clients who get the same payment rate as the other artists.
Vartanian planted lavender fields for clients to make soaps, oils and lotions. Fur from the center’s alpacas will be repurposed. There’s chickens, bunnies and bees; putt-putt golf; and hands-on workshops. Every Friday morning clients sell honey and eggs on the front porch.
Nine clients with special needs are now on the Living and Learning payroll and the goal is to add another 11 by this year.
“The whole campus becomes this wonderland where people can take their kids have a good time and relax,” said Pam Travis, Living and Learning chief operating officer, a parent of a daughter with special needs and a former teacher.
Living and Learning Center offers 30 different programs, including an IT Academy, which is run with a Cisco partnership. Students receive certificates in cyber security and land internships. There are 46 clients in the vocational skill building program at businesses in the community.
“The clients’ experiences have been life changing by gaining meaningful job skills that will lead to gainful employment,” Travis said. “Our goal is help them become contributing members of society.”
The Massey location is perfect, Vartanian explained, because there are nearby apartment communities and Living and Learning will help clients live independently.
“Parents commonly ask the question, ‘What happens when I die?’” Travis said. “We are going to give them a sense of peace from what we can provide through our center.”
Vartanian hopes to bring the public to the Massey property with summertime free outside movies. She already began renting the property for special events and weddings. The goal is for Living and Learning clients to work these events and earn certification in hospitality services.
“We leave the gates open during the day for the public to come and walk the property or they can get a private tour,” Vartanian said. “We want people to enjoy the beautiful grounds. This was such a gift and we want to share it. So many amazing people have helped me. If someone knows someone with special needs, tell them to reach out to us. If we’re not the perfect fit, we’ll find another place to help.”
Travis added, “The community believed so much in Rachelle’s vision that they knew this had to happen.”
Call Living and Learning at 248-308-3592 or go to livingandlearningcenter.org to make a donation and for more information.