The two Mary Blount Elementary classrooms at first glance are simply bright and inviting, with national park posters on the wall, new flexible furniture and places to play, including a Lego table and a tent. Every element, however, was designed to better serve students with significant disabilities.

The “extreme makeover” for Comprehensive Development Classrooms revealed Saturday morning, July 24, brought teacher Rhonda Haney to tears. “I can’t wait till the kids come,” said assistant Robin Lee. “It’s so much more than we had.”

Previously the rooms were “sufficient,” but not “an optimal learning environment,” according to Janice McPhearson, a leader of Mary Blount’s special education team.

Where a table on its side once served as a barrier in front of a window to keep a student from banging on it, now there are rolling carts with storage below and on top a river scene made with rocks and epoxy, providing a tactile sensory experience. “No one else in the nation has one of these,” Missy Johnson, founder of Kingdom Design Ministries, said of the custom design provided by Tillman Construction.

The tent was carefully chosen without a lip, so a wheelchair can roll right inside. The blanket inside is weighted for comforting, and one of the pillows vibrates when hugged to help calm children.

Six bright orange mobility assist chairs provide easier movement for students who otherwise would be in wheelchairs. What looks like standard green classroom chairs are designed so the backs flex if students rock, and if they want to sit backward, cutouts provide space for their legs.

Tables double as dry-erase boards, and the teacher’s workstation is on a hydraulic lift, smoothing moving from standing height to sitting.

The rooms aren’t quite complete. New solar shades are expected to arrive in a couple of weeks.

#COVIDCan’tStopUs

Kingdom Design Ministries completed seven makeovers in homes during 2019, but COVID-19 halted those types of projects. “We can’t go into homes right now,” said Johnson, explaining that many of the children the nonprofit serves have weakened immune systems.

KDM was six days into a classroom makeover at William Blount High School in March 2020 when it had to halt because of the coronavirus, finally wrapping up in the summer. Kingdom Design can’t risk starting work on renovating the only bathroom in a home and having to stop.

While it usually focuses home makeovers for those who don’t have the insurance, family, church or other support to transform living spaces, for the past year it has partnered on what it calls “legacy projects” that impact many children over many years.

Porter and Rockford elementary schools received calming rooms this year for children with learning disabilities and emotional needs.

The Mary Blount makeovers also honor the legacy of Charlie “Paw” Layus. When he died in March, his family asked that people donate to Kingdom Design instead of sending flowers; signs in the classroom remember him.

KDM currently has a waiting list of eight children. “The need is great,” Johnson said.

The nonprofit already is planning a family friendly fundraiser in October.

Many hands

In the past week alone, Johnson estimates volunteers logged close to 500 hours on the Mary Blount project, and that was after three months of planning and working closely with the school staff to identify needs and solutions.

The dollar cost of the makeovers was about $17,000, and that doesn’t count about $10,000 in donated products and labor.

Cornerstone of Recovery provided four volunteers who are in the residential recovery program and helped with furniture assembly and other tasks. “They were such a blessing,” Johnson said. “They worked so hard.”

Maryville football players and Arconic employees pitched in too, and a United Way grant provided some of the funding.

While Blount County Schools staff work to be champions for kids, “You guys are champions for us,” Special Education Supervisor Mike Brewer told Johnson and other members of Kingdom Design Ministries after the makeover reveal, calling the transformations “life changing.”

Education Reporter

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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