Overcoming the Odds: A 19-year-old man grows from a therapy client into an employee

Sparkling windows, sturdy birdhouses, and a handmade wooden puppet stage signal Tristan Dean’s transition from successful patient to valued employee at Game Changer Pediatric Therapy Services.

Three years ago, Dean wore pajamas to his therapy sessions. On the drive to the 3727 Wilder Road facility, his mom, Tonya Asbury, had to stop and buy a 24-ounce Faygo Moon Mist and half-dozen Tim Hortons donuts. During sessions, Dean talked almost exclusively about video games. He took little notice of other patients.

Dean’s mom says she never imagined he would learn the skills needed to hold a traditional job. At Game Changer, Dean cleans and disinfects surfaces. He also helps build spaces and tools for therapists to use with patients. After about 1 ½ years of treatment, though, Dean has improved enough that the center offered him a job as assistant to the property manager at the therapy center. Since early fall, he’s worked about 10 hours a week at the center.

His mom, Tonya Asbury, says she never imagined her son would be able to hold a job and earn a paycheck.

Kellie Staszak, co-owner of the therapy center, says Game Changer holds Dean to traditional employee standards. He had to complete an application and interview with co-owner Scott Staszak, who is also an occupational therapist. After Dean accepted the job, he opened his first bank account. He learned about the paperwork needed to collected a paycheck and started complying with a dress code.

“He learned a lot about getting a job,” Kellie Staszak says.

Scott and Kellie Staszak own Game Changer Pediatric Therapy Services. The couple worked with Tristan Dean to help him graduate from therapy recipient to an employee.Today, Dean says the best part of work is looking around and seeing what he’s accomplished. He helped build an outdoor therapy area for use during the COVID-19 restrictions on building occupancy. He crafted a puppet stage from wood and fabric. He built frames for art on the walls. One of the framed pieces of is a puzzle Dean completed.

When asked about the job, Dean says he is proud to keep the facility clean, making it a safe and healthy environment for other patients and staff. He also loves earning a paycheck.

Dean worked with Property Manager Markus Gonzales to design and build a puppet theater for patients at the center.Kellie and Scott Staszak say Dean is one of their success stories. They’ve also continued helping him to grow through the use of some unusual job requirements. For example, his mom no longer stops for a pop on the way to the center. Instead, after Dean arrives at work, he has to go to a nearby convenience store and buy a drink himself. Before he leaves, he has to ask at least three other people if they want anything.

Asbury says Dean’s growth has far exceeded the expectations she and Dean’s stepfather, Charles Asbury, had when they first brought him to the center. Therapists at the center agree that Dean has grown.

Tristan Dean, assistant to the property manager at Game Changer Pediatric Therapy Services, helped build this outdoor space for patients. Birdhouses and flower boxes decorate the space.“His mom says he was never concerned about anyone else,” Kellie Staszak remembers. “He never interacted with other kids.”

When he first started walking to a nearby convenience store to buy a drink, Dean had to rehearse asking other people if they wanted anything. He had to plan out how he would write down their requests and practice collecting their money. But then when another child unexpectedly showed up with a cast on his arm, Dean spontaneously asked him what happened. With no time to rehearse, Dean told the child about his cousin’s broken arm.

Artificial grass and play equipment dots the outdoor therapy space.“They had a normal conversation about this. Not only did he notice, but then he used one of his memories and related. I was so excited. I had to call his mom. It was amazing,” Kellie Staszak says.

He now pays for his own meal in a restaurant, which helps him understand money management.

Dean works with Markus Gonzales, a former Applied Behavioral Analysis technician who now works as the property manager. The job allows Dean to spread in his wings while under close supervision. While working, he’s also acquired new life skills, Scott Staszak says.

Nuts and bolts are two of the tools in use at the therapy center.Molly Schalk, an occupational therapist who worked with Dean, says temper tantrums, once a daily occurrence, no longer happen. Instead, Dean shows up dressed appropriately and ready to work.

“It’s very routine and structured,” says Scott Staszak. “We’re getting him out of the house, communicating, going to the store.”

Every step Dean takes makes Asbury proud. High school proved too challenging and Dean couldn’t finish. When he got a job offer after about 1 ½ years of therapy, she was thrilled. “That’s a big achievement,” Asbury says.



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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at editor@RouteBayCity.com