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Michigan school custodian found a way to make a difference for special education students

Don Icenogle (against wall, wearing glasses) with members of AFSCME Local 1055 (Michigan Council 25) and two students who benefitted from the local's scholarship foundation. (Member-provided photo)
By Pablo Ros ·
Michigan school custodian found a way to make a difference for special education students
Every once in a while, Don Icenogle runs into or hears from one of the students that he mentored and feels glad to have made a difference. (Member-provided photo)

If he could do it all over again, Don Icenogle might choose a career in special education.

A custodian at Roosevelt High School in Wyandotte, Mich., Icenogle grew up with a brother, Dave, who had an intellectual disability. Now that he’s approaching retirement, Icenogle says, after nearly two decades with the public school system, he regrets not having done more to help students like Dave.

“I would have liked to have been a special education teacher because I think I would have been really good at it,” he says. “But I was very shy at school, and I wasn’t sure of myself. I didn’t have the confidence to think that I could someday become a teacher. It took me a long time to gain that confidence.”

To many in the Wyandotte community, however, Icenogle has done plenty, not only to help special education students but others as well. So says Joe Egan, a co-worker who coordinates the grounds operations.

“Don is second to none,” Egan says. “He helps everybody and goes out of his way to help anybody in this building, whether a fellow employee or a student. He’s the kind of guy who’ll go out of his way to give you a hand and never complains. You can’t even tell when he’s having a bad day because he always has his hand up first. He loves this city, and he loves the district.”

For his service to his community, Icenogle is a winner of our union’s Never Quit Service Award, which seeks to recognize public service workers who go above and beyond the call of duty to make their communities better.

Since joining the school district, Icenogle has gone out of his way to help the community. Through his union, AFSCME Local 1055 (Michigan Council 25), he has helped organize basketball tournaments to raise money for needy families. He helped create the AFSCME Local 1055 Scholarship Foundation, which benefits students who overcome obstacles. The local also participates in the Toys for Tots program and helps U.S. military veterans by providing them donated clothing, food and toiletries.

But there’s one aspect of his job that Icenogle seems especially to enjoy, and that is working with special education students.

“One day I asked my boss if I could teach students in the special education program some of the skills that I use as a custodian, since many of these kids are going to need practical skills to get jobs, and he was okay with it,” Icenogle says.

Since then, he has taught some of the students at the high school the skills of his trade.

“Some people, when they call you a janitor or a custodian, they think lowly of us at first,” Icenogle says. “But we work hard, a lot of us do, and we’re just as important as any other public service worker.”

Every once in a while, Icenogle says, he catches up with or hears from one of the students that he’s mentored. Like the time he ran into a former student at Kroger’s, where the young man was employed.

“He told me he was doing bagging and some cleaning in the store, and that the training he’d had with me made him believe that he could do it,” Icenogle recalls. “I felt very proud of him.”

Icenogle may not have pursued a career in teaching, but he found a way to make a difference in the lives of special education students.

Never Quit Service Awards

Do you know a co-worker who goes above and beyond the call of duty to make their community better? Nominate them for AFSCME’s Never Quit Service Award.

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