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Road to success: Senior says hard work helps overcome autism

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. North Gwinnett High School senior Zach Kallman will attend Abraham-Baldwin Agricultural College this fall. Kallman, who has autism, attention-deficit disorder and a learning disability, owns his own lawn care business and also manages the North Gwinnett Java Dawg Cafe, the school's on campus coffee house.

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. North Gwinnett High School senior Zach Kallman will attend Abraham-Baldwin Agricultural College this fall. Kallman, who has autism, attention-deficit disorder and a learning disability, owns his own lawn care business and also manages the North Gwinnett Java Dawg Cafe, the school's on campus coffee house.

SUWANEE -- When Zach Kallman was in sixth grade, he hopped onto a riding lawn mower and drove around his Suwanee neighborhood, asking people if he could cut their lawns.

His entrepreneurial spirit led Kallman to create his own lawn care business while he was still in middle school. When he first started, Kallman only had a riding lawn mower and push mower. As he obtained more equipment, he also expanded his services.

Growing his business was just the natural thing to do, as the now 19-year-old North Gwinnett High School senior said he's always been taught to work hard.

"In the family I've grown up in, all I've learned is working hard," Kallman said. "No matter how hard something is, never give up. Never give up on yourself. Never give up on hope."

Kallman, who is graduating from high school on Monday, has also had to work hard in school. Kallman has autism, attention-deficit disorder and a learning disability.

But Kallman is quick to point out that he's no different than anyone else.

"I just have to take the extra step to work hard," he said.

When Kallman encounters something that's hard, he said he sometimes will "throw a fit about it." But he doesn't give up. He said he just finds a different way of doing it.

Kallman said he's made A's and B's and will graduate with a 3.0 grade-point average. In August, he'll start taking classes at Abraham-Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, where he plans to study either turf management or landscape design.

"I've had plans of what I wanted to do since my freshman year of high school," Kallman said. "I hope I'm very successful."

Paul Cromie, a North Gwinnett High School teacher who works with Kallman in the school's coffee shop, said he has no doubt that Kallman will be successful.

"Zach is nothing short of a true success story in terms of overcoming his exceptionality," Cromie said. "His parents have set high expectations for him, and Zach has continuously met them. He's a very, very hard-working youth man.

"He has the drive and determination to be successful. We expect big things for him."

Cromie said Kallman demonstrated characteristics that helped him win the inaugural Pride, Promise and Perseverance Scholarship, which will give him $2,500 to help fund his college education.

At the coffee shop, which serves as a learning environment for students with special needs, Kallman proved to be an exemplary employee who quickly went through the ranks to a managerial position, Cromie said. Kallman began working at the coffee shop in August, and by the end of the year, he was training other students and serving as a mentor to others.

"You can't teach heart. You can't teach determination," Cromie said. "That's something that this kid's got."

Kallman said he's learned a lot from the coffee shop, particularly how to manage money. He said it's a skill that's been useful to him in his lawn care business.

There are a lot of people Kallman credits with helping him be successful throughout the years.

He said his friends Jordan and Robert LeRoux took him to church, an experience that he said changed his life. Matt Plunkett, the student ministry pastor at The Bridge church, and church member Andrew Millette, who died earlier this year, have also been inspirational figures to Kallman.

And, of course, his parents, Steve and Libby.

"They're good mentors for me," Kallman said. "They do so much for me. They take the extra step because they love me and they are very proud of me."