Mariah Ruth Archibald is a student at Analy High School and volunteers to work with severely handicapped special classes. Photo by Jeff Kan Lee / The Press Democrat

By CATHY BUSSEWITZ
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
In the cacophony of a noisy classroom with teenagers wandering in several different directions, Mariah Ruth Archibald calmly strolls in and says hello to the students.
The Analy High School senior, who is a teaching assistant for the school’s Severely Handicapped Special Day Class, is visiting during a break between classes, as she often does.
She plunks down on a bright yellow yoga ball in front of a boy with a workbook open at his desk.
“OK, the first letter is ‘K,’ ” Archibald says, leaning in to help him with his lesson. The goal of the class is to not just learn reading and math, but cooking, laundry and other life skills vital to independent living.
Archibald, 18, began volunteering with autistic children five years ago at a summer day camp at Sonoma State University, where she taught swimming and biking to special-education students.
“I was so nervous about it the first day, and then I thought, ‘Oh, I loved it,’ ” Archibald said. “I feel like I can make a difference in their lives, which is nice.”
At the camp, Archibald met an autistic boy who initially wouldn’t look at her.
“He would stare away from me, and wouldn’t want to interact,” she said.
Eventually, he opened up enough to give her hugs, she said. And Archibald continued to work with form bonds with the children.
“I think people who have autism have a lot of thoughts going on like you or I, but they just can’t express them, and that would be so frustrating,” Archibald said. “I think they’re funny and interesting, and I never get bored when I’m with them.”
Archibald prefers helping younger children because she feels she can make a difference. But it’s harder to work with older teens and adults, such as the 21-year-old whose diaper she changed.
“I still like working with them, but it’s kind of sad to know that they’re never going to live on their own,” Archibald said.
Eventually, Archibald hopes to become a special-education teacher. The next step to reaching her goal is attending UC Santa Cruz, where she plans to major in psychology.
“I can’t wait,” Archibald said. “I’m excited to meet new people and get out of being in a small community.”
Meanwhile, she’s keeping busy with hefty assignments in her AP Literature, advanced biology, government, math and trigonometry classes, not to mention band, where she plays the flute. She also spends several hours each week at a job teaching piano lessons at local elementary schools.
“She realizes how helpful she can be in these kids’ lives, and just helping makes her feel good,” said Adam Alcorn, education specialist at Analy who leads the special-education class. “She’ll come into class when she’s not supposed to be here and check on the kids because of the relationships she’s built.”

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.

Name: Mariah Ruth Archibald
Age: 18
Birthplace: Santa Rosa
Lives with: Lisa (mother), Paul (father), Evvy (fraternal twin sister) and her dog Stella and cats Griffin and Squeaky.
What’s in her iPod: Country music, Fun, Devil Makes Three, Lady Antebellum, Decemberists, Celtic music
Favorite hobby: cooking and being outside
Dream job: Special education teacher specializing in young autistic children
Favorite TV shows: “Smash,” “Law & Order”
Favorite food: Soup
Quote: “I’m glad that I can say I know exactly what I want to do with my life, and not feel up in the air about it.”