WENATCHEE — The trucks of Monster Jam grabbed Nick Fukuzawa’s attention when the now 20-year-old was in grade school. By the time he was in eighth grade, Grave Digger was his hero and his goal was to drive one of the huge-tired trucks that span the globe-wowing crowds with speed and crushing capabilities.
Legally deaf since birth, Fukuzawa can speak well and understands most of what is said to him, with some assistance from lip reading, a cochlear implant and an American Sign Language interpreter who stays with him during the school day.
He has spent most of his school career in the Eastmont School District and will graduate this year from Eastmont High School, with plans to attend Wenatchee Valley College.
His dream of driving a monster truck is still in the back of his mind, but he is starting on a smaller scale that could lead to big things.
“I love cars,” he said. “I want to work on cars. But I’m also trying to decide on a career and how to make money.”
With that in mind, he started taking auto-tech classes at the high school and Wenatchee Valley Technical Skills Center last school year, exploring first the body shop and then getting under the hood in auto mechanics.
“I like to learn about car problems and motor stuff,” he said. “I want to fix my own car or the cars of my friends and family. Maybe even my interpreter’s car.”
He laughed. His interpreter, Margaret Sanders, had suggested that last bit.
For second-year students who have the attitude, grades and desire to learn more, the tech center program has an internship/mentorship element that allows students to get real-world experience by working in real-life auto shops.
Fukuzawa’s circumstances required some extra planning, said Albino Luna, the auto-tech teacher at the skills center.
“He had an interpreter which meant there would always be another person standing around the technician and Nick. I was not sure how it would work at a shop with insurance, daily tasks and those sorts of things,” Luna said.
At the start of school in the fall, Luna took the question to the center’s advisory committee, made up of managers from dealerships and businesses.
“I explained our situation and was hopeful someone would at least meet with me so we could talk about it,” he said.
Wenatchee Kia Service Manager Dave Manke, who has been on the tech center advisory board for 15 years off and on, stepped forward, agreeing to invite Fukuzawa to work in the shop on a trial basis.
Fukuzawa started his mentorship at Kia in October. It was a slow start, he said.
“The first day, I learned a lot, but I didn’t touch anything. I just watched,” Fukuzawa said.
As the oil-change crew and line techs got to know him, they started letting him get his hands dirty and experiencing the ups and downs of working on cars.
The bigger lessons, though, have been broader — life experience, work ethic, deadlines and expectations.
Fukuzawa works at the shop from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. five days a week, a schedule Manke has offered to continue through the rest of the school year after seeing it in action for the first few months.
“This is the first time we’ve had anyone stay this long,” Manke said. “He’s needed some more time because it takes him a little longer. But he has a good attitude and all the things we like to see. He is a very nice young man. He was embraced as part of the team.”
Manke said the experience has also been good for the crew.
“It’s interesting to see the positive influence on other people,” Manke said. “You don’t want to coddle or baby a guy, but you also find yourself thinking more about this other person and your relationship to the other person and working with another person in a different way. I think they all see themselves as teachers or mentors.”
He wasn’t sure how things would go initially.
“There’s always a little bit of a period of settling in and figuring out what we’re going to do. So through those first months, he mostly just worked doing whatever on the oil racks,” Manke said.
Manke then kicked up the expectations a notch or two.
“You aren’t going to like everything in life. You might not like your supervisor or the guy next to you. And there is stuff you’re going to have to choose to do and stuff you’re going to have to push yourself to learn to be productive, no matter what you do,” Manke said.
Fukuzawa now has tasks assigned by his mentor of the day and the crew has set up tests to raise the bar.
“We’ve actually had him change the oil on his own car,” Manke said.
The first run through took him an hour and a half and he ended up covered in oil. The second time through was better and took an hour. The goal is to get it down to 30 minutes or so.
The crew also has come up with some tool identification tests and are thinking of other ways to boost his experience.
“They’ve been pretty tough on him,” Manke said. “They are very vocal in letting him know their expectations. When Nick feels like he doesn’t want to do something, they push him. It’s part of the deal. It’s life skills and expectations of life. And these guys have done a great job in being a part of his life. They love the kid.”
Sanders, who has served as Fukuzawa’s ASL interpreter this year, has seen Nick start to blossom at Kia.
“I don’t think he would have gotten this kind of experience anywhere else,” she said. “The eight people in this building are interested in him. They are happy to see him when he shows up. They want him to succeed.”
Fukuzawa plans to enroll in the Wenatchee Valley College auto-tech program next year and has met the auto-tech teachers there. He will still be able to have an ASL interpreter with him through college, but understands that won’t be the case when he goes out to get a job.
Fukuzawa is now considering what kind of certifications to pursue, if any. He enjoys working at Kia, but is looking forward to college, too.
He hasn’t given up on being a Monster Jam driver or an owner — or the mechanic.
“That would be awesome,” he said.
Manke said Fukuzawa has the ability to do anything he chooses.
“His disability can be a positive thing. He has ability. When you lose one thing, everything else gets more heightened. And he may have more ability than any of us have,” he said. “Nowadays, as a culture, as people, we accept disability so much more than when I was growing up. That’s a cool thing.”