With every can or bottle he collects and returns, Tyler Laviolette of White Lake takes a step closer to fulfilling the dream of his parents who wanted him to live a normal and productive life despite odds of less than 20 percent he would even survive.
Laviolette, 21, started Tyler’s Bottle Service last August by posting fliers in the neighborhood. Since that time, his business has expanded to include customers in Milford, White Lake, Commerce, Highland and Waterford townships, Wixom in Oakland County, Livonia in Wayne County, and a Brighton church in Livingston County.
Laviolette, who was born with cerebral palsy and has autism, graduated from Lakeland High School in 2011 but was unable to find a job.
However, his mother, Rhonda Gelstein, said doctors gave her son less than a one-in-five chance of surviving after he was worn with cerebral palsy and autism.
“I racked my brain” to think of a business Tyler could start” so he could be gainfully employed doing something he enjoyed. He always liked to put the cans in the return machines, she said.
When Laviolette was born, he weighed one pound, five ounces, Gelstein said, adding he was in acute care for 100 days.
She said “years ago” when Tyler was a high school senior “we visited a post-secondary program” for students with disabilities. Under the law, students with disabilities are entitled to go to public school until age 26.
“… I came home, called into work and said I wouldn’t be in for the rest of the day, and cried,” Gelstein said. “What I saw was horrifying to me. These great adults were not having their potential reached and they were being merely babysat. I said to my husband, ‘I’ll create a program if I have to before I put my son in something like that.’”
“Little did I know that God was going to take me at my word,” she said in reference to the enlightening moment when her son’s business was conceptualized.
“I am doing great,” Laviolette said.
He receives community living supports in the form of a driver, John Glenn, of Waterford Township, who takes him to pick up bottles and cans 15 hours a week. Laviolette then takes them to the stores and puts them in the machines and receives a dime for each. Some customers let him keep all the money from the returns. Between October through the end of December, he has returned about 12,000 bottles and cans, Laviolette said.
He is seeking approval for an additional 10 hours of driving assistance so he can work 25 hours Monday through Friday and expand his business.
“It’s work but people go to work and I can take care of their cans,” he said. “I am a success now. I’m not going to stop because I’ve made some money.”
He plans to go to race car events and a Tigers’ ball game with his father, Bryan Laviolette, with some of the money he earns.
His biggest haul was “more than 1,000 cans and bottles in 10 huge black bags,” said Laviolette, who has a brother, Logan, who is attending Michigan Technological University.
“The community has been amazing,” said Gelstein of the response of customers and people who responded to the original fliers announcing Tyler’s Bottle Service. “They were complete strangers to us and now they are spreading the word. In fact, at Christmas Tyler received gifts from some of his customers. He tells everyone about his business. It’s done wonders for his self-esteem.”
Her vision of her son’s future is to “be on his own with a roommate or two and structuring his life just like any of us do,” Gelstein said.
Jerry Wolffe is the writer-in-residence/advocate-at-large at the Macomb-Oakland Regional Center. He can be reached at 586 263 8950.