Finding your sweet spot: Denny Bolafka

Published 6:16 pm Friday, December 9, 2016

Denny Bolafka is going to start a school. Inspired by both her 7-year-old granddaughter Isabell and a child under her professional care, Bolafka is designing her school for autistic children only. The 60-year-old student at Beaufort County Community College has worked a variety of jobs throughout her life, and after all these years, she has found her calling.

“[With autistic kids], you have to constantly be thinking outside the box in how they learn,” Bolafka said. “What works now will not work in a day. It will not work in two hours.”

Her school will feature small class sizes and work with parents, as well. “Parents have a hard time,” she said.

Bolafka grew up in the Sacramento Valley in California on a small dairy farm. There she learned to work hard. Neither of her parents finished grade school. Her father fought in the Korean War, and her mother only learned to drive in her 50s. The oldest of five, she became a wanderer, a gypsy soul in her own words, and fell in love with diversity and culture.

In 1989, she had her third child, and with her husband, moved to Andover, a suburb of Boston. It was not the dairy farm she grew up on, and it took a while for her to get settled. Bolafka experienced public transit for the first time, but with her appetite for novel experiences, she adjusted quickly.

“That was something I had to learn, but it was amazing. I loved it,” she said.

Boston and Cambridge also gave her the cosmopolitan experiences she craved. Her mother-in-law had retired from Harvard, where Bolafka took a weekend job at the Faculty Club.

“Dignitaries from all over the world. I got to meet John Lithgow,” she said. “That’s what America’s about. Every walk of life is represented in the community. No offense — it’s not just white people. Their food was fabulous. I grew up on Southern cooking,” she said. “I got to eat food I didn’t know existed.”

As the cost of living increased, her family moved to Beaufort County, where Bolafka’s mother-in-law grew up. It was hard for Bolafka to leave. In her seven years as a single mother, she moved all over California, working as everything from a phlebotomist to a fitness instructor. Often she worked several jobs at once. She was finally working a great job in health care and just one job.

The gypsy soul found work as a caretaker for an autistic child. At the same time, her granddaughter Isabell was born and, at 2 years old, was diagnosed with autism.

Bolafka is so passionate about these children that at times her eyes grow thick with tears.

“Seeing a child accomplish a task that has taken so long to master, when they say, ‘I can do it,’ that’s priceless. Something as simple as tying their shoes, writing their name.”

“When these kids are having a meltdown, you have to be supportive,” she added.

She can spot families working through such crises. She witnessed a mother at Walmart negotiating with her child to avoid a meltdown. Afterwards, she walked up to the mother, telling her, “Great job, mom.” Such support is important for parents.

Bolafka wanted to return to school to move her career forward.

“My skills were done. I was tired of working for a paycheck,” she said. “When I first came (to BCCC) in 2015, I had not been in school for a long time. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done.”

She sampled different curriculums, but none felt right to her.

“The family I was working with suggested to me, ‘Why not be a teacher?’ Why didn’t I think of this?” Bolafka recalled.

She found the special education program at BCCC and is currently working on an associate of arts degree.

She plans to continue at East Carolina University, where she will start as a junior and begin student teaching.

Her inspiration is the school that Isabell attends in Oregon, where she has thrived. She said that the trick to a breakthrough with an autistic child is finding what they are interested in. For Isabell, it was singing to the animated musical “Frozen.”

“I call it a sweet spot. The boy I work with likes fire trucks and fishing. For her, it’s Disney musicals.”

This first-generation college student has thrived at BCCC, appreciating its small class sizes and one-on-one help from instructors. She is a BCCC ambassador, helping out at community functions.

“I was raised to work hard. When someone gives me something, I don’t appreciate it if I didn’t put my blood sweat and tears into it.”

Bolafka seems to have found her own sweet spot.

“I found my purpose. I don’t look at this as a job.”

She says to herself, “What is it going to take to keep this fire, this passion, alive inside of me?”