By Dan Montgomery

Every parent is proud when a child receives a high-school diploma, but let’s allow Robert McGuire a little extra pride right now.

His son, Ethan, who has autism, just graduated from Central High School in Wise. The same Ethan who, because of behavioral-emotional challenges, was expelled from pre-school, from Head Start, from 1st-grade, and from 2nd grade. (He completed kindergarten only because of a first-year teacher who would not admit to failure, his dad says.)

“I would drop him off at school,” Robert remembers. “I’d get to work by 8:30. By 9 a.m., I was having to go pick him up, and that was an everyday thing.”

For a time, Ethan had a teacher and two aides, “and they still couldn’t get anything out of him,” Robert said. “They tried homebound instruction, which was one hour a day, which was 45 minutes of me fighting with him to listen to the teacher for 15 minutes.”

Ethan and Robert during a visit to Wise Minnick School

Ethan shakes his head a little when remembering his younger self. “I thought the world of myself,” he says. “I thought I could get everything the way I wanted by doing whatever I wanted.”

“He was extremely manipulative,” Robert says. “Everything had to be his way.”

But Robert did not give up on Ethan, because he was his son, and because giving up on Ethan would have been like giving up on his own younger self, the younger self who was taken away from his mother at 4 years old (she later signed away all parental rights) and grew up in, get this, 37 foster homes, four group homes, two detention centers and two psychiatric hospitals (One of his stops was at the former Lutheran Family Services of Virginia Children’s Home of the South.).

“I was probably just like Ethan, but when I was that age, there wasn’t a diagnosis,” Robert says. “So, I didn’t get the help Ethan was able to have here.”

“Here” is the Minnick School in Wise, the place where Ethan’s education began to turn around. But a lot of things had to happen first.

“When it came down to making a decision for Ethan, it was a no-brainer — I was not going to give up on him.”

Robert has been an electrician since he was 18. “I’m not loaded. I live paycheck to paycheck, but from where I was to where I’m at now: I’ve come a long way myself,” Robert says.

So, he reasoned, why couldn’t Ethan do the same?

Ethan and Lori Long, one of his original educators at Wise Minnick School

Robert and a school official searched Virginia for the right school for Ethan. The best fit seemed to be LFSVA’s Minnick School in Wytheville. In the end, Ethan did not go to the school, the school came to him. The Minnick School in Wise opened in November 2010, with one student: Ethan McGuire.

“It was a godsend for us,” Robert says. “It changed our world — drastically.”

“Anyone who wants to listen, I tell them: In the beginning, it’s hard, but it will change your life,”

“And it will change your kid’s life,” Ethan adds.

After a few years at Minnick, Ethan transitioned back into the public schools, Robert says, “and he’s been doing awesome since.”

And, as hard as it was to get here, for Ethan, for Robert, for all those teachers and teacher’s aides, Robert doesn’t think about changing the past.

“All Ethan’s struggles have built who he is now, and he’s going to be successful.”