Special student makes amazing strides

Local News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — A local teen is inspiring people with learning disabilities to never give up.

Tristan Simmons went from being homeless to his school district’s Student of the Year. But, he couldn’t have done it alone.

Tristan, who is autistic, showed strength and resilience. He’s had a rough childhood and a troubled home life where family members openly called him stupid.

Tristan says he’s living proof he, and anyone else like him, can accomplish goals. Tristan loves watching movies.

Black Panther is one of my favorites now.”

He also likes Incredibles Two.

“A lot of action and that’s really, wow! That’s good.”

Twice a week, he throws on his uniform and heads to work.

“I can get free popcorn and soda.”

A typical first job for a teenager, but for Tristan, it means so much more. He’s autistic and, just last year, was homeless.

“I had no choice.”

Abandoned by his family, for weeks he lived on the streets in need of help.

“I am homeless. I have no food, no water, whatever and I need somewhere to go.”

He stumbled into St. John’s Hospital and found a man who turned his life around.

“I just remember walking into the ER and talking to the social worker that was there.”

John Berry is a program manager for Bethesda Lutheran Communities, a group home for the disabled.

“We went back in his room where he was sitting on his bed. He kind of just looked at me with a quizzical look.”

It was there the two made a life-changing deal.

“He told me, without hesitation, ‘I want to finish high school. I want to get a job and make money for myself.’ That struck me as someone who knew what they wanted for themselves.”

Berry asked for one thing: trust.

“I did pretty good for what I’ve been through.”

What a difference a year makes. He works at the theater and graduate high school.

“He’s come very, very far. Had you met him last summer, physically, he’s the same person, but mentally, he’s completely different.”

How far? Tristan was named Springfield schools’ Student of the Year and even made honor roll. Now, Tristan hopes to inspire others.

He lives in a community home with six others who are also disabled. He says he likes it there, but wants to go to college next and ultimately get his own place where he can become fully independent.

“Showing everybody that disabilities doesn’t mean nothing. It really doesn’t.”

Berry says, without resources, he believes Tristan would have ended up in the criminal justice system.

Researchers found those with disabilities have a four-to-ten times higher risk of becoming victims of crime compared to those without disabilities. Children with any type of disability are 3.4 times more likely to be abused compared to children without disabilities.

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