BIRMINGHAM, Mich. (WXYZ) - When you think about the high school students who normally speak at graduation, there’s usually the Valedictorian or the Star Student – those kind of achievers. But one young man broke the mold in Birmingham.
The first of four Seaholm High School graduation speeches delivered on June 4 was not even four minutes long. But Ben Gretchko made every second count.
When 7 Action News caught up with the 18-year-old this week, he still had not watched the video of his speech. So, we watched it together with his parents and his special education teacher from third grade at Quarton Elementary School.
“My name is Ben Gretchko,” he began. “I’m not the captain of the football team. I’m certainly not the valedictorian of our class. I am a student with learning disabilities. In fact, I am autistic.”
His Mom said when he delivered that line about having Autism, a hush came over the whole room.
“You could hear people take a mini gasp," recalls Lisa Gretchko. “That’s what I think was the power of that particular speech. The delivery was good, and people just listened. [It was a] simple message, his truth.”
His Mom said many of his fellow seniors included many from his third grade class. These are the same students his special education teacher Stacey Raznick worked with – teaching them how to accept a child with Autism.
And Ben talked about how their kindness from then on impacted him over the years.
"When you – my classmates – were asked to help me grow by playing with me on the playground or explaining why a joke was funny, you stepped up to that challenge and helped me feel accepted,” he said in his speech.
It was a special treat for Stacey Raznick to sit in the audience as Ben went on to applaud her and all of his teachers who worked with him in Birmingham Public Schools.
"Thanks to their dedication and hard work with me, I got into 4 universities. I’m actually going to Western Michigan University,” said Ben in the speech.
The crowd started cheering.
"Him going up at graduation and saying what he said, that's why, that's why I am a teacher," said Raznick choking back tears. “You can change someone’s life.”
Ben was diagnosed with Autism when he was 2 1/2 years old.
"He was a completely silent child. There was no babbling, no effort at language," recalled his Mom.
Doctors told his parents to learn sign language in case he never learned to speak. But his parents didn’t give up hope.
After years of therapy with the help of his parents, doctors, and public school teachers, all that hard work paid off.
"When I saw Ben up there [speaking at graduation], I couldn't cry. I was just sort of blown back in my chair with this poised person that I remember as a silent young boy standing up there and delivering such wise words," his Mom explained.
"Afterwards in walking out and in the little reception they had afterwards, [his speech] is what people were talking about,” his Dad Steve Gretchko recalled proudly.
One of the lines that resonated with many people was this one:
“Through all my speech issues and learning issues, I’m a regular kid just like all of you,” said Ben, underscoring that people with special needs want all the same things “regular” kids do.
The non-profit organization Autism Speaks posted the video of Ben’s speech to its Facebook page.
It went viral.
Within two weeks, it had racked up more than 1.6-million views.
"I just think that there's a lot of people out there in a similar circumstance that are looking for hope,” said Ben’s Dad.
Ben was confident the speech would go over well in the gym, but the overwhelming response it’s received online caught him off guard a bit.
"I thought it would be an inspiring speech. What is a surprise is the fact that I got more than 1.6-million views,” he said with a smile.
He wrapped up the speech reminding the students – and adults in the room – to be accepting of all people with special needs as you journey through life.
“Your acts of kindness can and will make a huge difference in the lives of others -- just as they made me the person I am today. Thank you all,” he finished.
Then the audience gave him a standing ovation.
His inspiring message of acceptance is why Ben Gretchko is this week’s Detroit 2020 Person of the Week.
Ben heads to Kalamazoo for six weeks this summer to attend a transition program for college students with Autism.
He starts as a freshman at Western Michigan University this fall.
Go, Broncos! And Go, Ben!
Special thanks to Donald Harrison and The PLAY Project for sharing their video of Ben Gretchko’s speech on YouTube and for our story.