Handmade: Special needs students craft employment skill

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

If you’ve ever purchased useful handmade items from Starkweather Art Center or the Special Treasures Store inside the Macomb Intermediate School District (MISD) building, you helped reinvest money back into the “highly successful” occupational therapy program at Warren Woods Tower High School, where Michael Mackenzie is principal.

Michele Morgan of Royal Oak and Debb Carlton of Clinton Township each have 20 years experience as occupational therapists, and for the past six years, the two have worked side by side, helping special needs students at Tower develop skills for putting their best foot forward in the work industry.

“The goal of the program is to prepare our students for post-secondary training, college, or competitive employment by promoting the benefits of industrial arts programming for nontraditional learners and at-risk youth. We strive to create job opportunities for all students, meeting them where they are. We promote machine technology, micro-enterprise, and manufacturing as viable and rewarding career pathways,” explained Morgan. “In the summertime, we also run a three-week intensive vocational training program, sponsored by Michigan Rehabilitation Services, that targets at-risk youth.”

Morgan said 76 students are receiving occupational therapy services through the present school-year program. Students range in age from 14-26, and make various items, using different types of industrial waste materials, all under the tutelage of Morgan and Carlton. “The materials we work with include wood, Corian, granite, glass and fabric, with an emphasis on creating functional pieces of art,” said Morgan. Fabric is their newest medium, and the result of a generous donation, which, so far, has been used to make lovely embroidered aprons and table runners.

“The Michigan Design Center reached out and offered to donate quality fabric remnants,” said Morgan. “We found we could make aprons and table runners in keeping with the size of the fabric that was donated.” The table runners are cut, measured and embroidered by the students before they’re sent off for finishing to quilter Cindy Dembeck of Warren. More quilters are needed, and plans are in the making for the program to partner with local quilting groups.

The therapists received the support they needed from Mackenzie through asking the Booster Club to release funds to help purchase the embroidery machine.

“Our students raised $7,000, then the Booster Club supported us by contributing $5,000,” Morgan said. “In addition to the embroidery machine, their workshop is also equipped with a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router, laser engraver, vinyl cutter, lathes, and other hand tools “found in traditional woodworking shops.”

Through the creative process, Morgan and Carlton guide the students toward learning “soft skills that employers are looking for – stamina, and developing work behaviors and grit – turning that frustration into not repeating the same mistake, but learning to make it better and improve their work.”

Carlton said, “It’s a very humbling experience to be with a student in the moment when everything clicks for them –when they’ve been working towards a goal and they get to have the very first taste of success at something.”

Along with table runners and aprons, the students embroider towels, shirts and tote bags. They also make Corian pendants, wooden ink pens, laser engraved cutting boards, etched glassware, engraved Corian and granite coasters, laser engraved granite trivets, lazy Susans, and more. And, in case you’re planning an event, they accept large orders, usually in the form of custom-engraved items for weddings, baby showers and gift baskets.

After purchasing some of the granite coasters at the school’s craft show, bride-to-be Erin Tafoya of Sterling Heights ordered 200 to be engraved as a gift for guests attending her wedding this summer. She said she and her mom “thought it would be an amazing opportunity to share what the students make.”

The students’ products, priced from $2-$20 each, are also available in the school’s store, Campus Corner, as part of a “business/marketing collaboration” between programs at Tower. Proceeds go toward maintaining and adding more machines to their workshop. For additional information, or to make a purchase, visit their website (

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact Warren Woods Tower High School (27900 Bunert, Warren) at (586) 439-4558. Email: or visit