Two elementary schools in Blount County now have the additional tools to help students with learning disabilities and / or emotional needs thanks to a local nonprofit that picked up where it left off in the middle of the pandemic.
Kingdom Design Ministries and its founder, Missy Johnson, have been providing dream room transformations and renovations for 13 years, primarily in residential settings. The non-profit organization does this at no cost to the beneficiaries. But in 2020, that residential side of work temporarily ceased when COVID-19 took hold of the world.
This organization therefore decided to take up another challenge. As Johnson explained, KDM received two dismissals at different times – one from Porter Elementary and one regarding Rockford Elementary. After meeting with the directors of the two, Johnson said it became very clear that they had similar needs.
âWe decided to do this Double Dog Dare Challenge and do both at the same time,â said the founder of KDM. âWe had two different teams, but the design concept was the same for both schools.â
The needs, Johnson explained, were for a space that could be used for children with autism or other conditions that sometimes need a place to get off the climb and feel safe. She said one of the principals told her they had four children with autism who could benefit from this downtime.
Anxiety in children is at an all time high, Johnson said. Part of this starts at home and then manifests itself in schools, she said.
Where there is a need
KDM and its volunteers therefore came together to find suitable spaces for the two schools. Planing began in December, Johnson said. The actual classroom renovations took place during spring break in March.
âIt wasn’t just a special education class,â Johnson explained. âIt’s a calming and sensory room for children with emotional needs or learning disabilities like autism. This room can be used by many more students. “
The two rooms are divided into four quadrants, Johnson said. One is the calming zone, the other is designed to be a reading space while a third is intended for sensory stimulation. The fourth quadrant is a swing suspended from the ceiling.
The aim was to give teachers at both schools a place where they could take students for a short time, then return to their regular classroom. There are breathing balls to help students calm their breathing and weighted blankets to make them feel safe and protected.
âThese things teach them lifelong skills on how to self-regulate,â Johnson said. “They can then apply it when they are at church, at the mall, or at home.”
Students who are brought into the soothing and sensory rooms are always supervised. Each space is painted a pale light blue color and the lighting is diffused instead of austere. Soft music can be played in the background as students spend time in a tent, swing, sit and read in a canoe, or work at the Lego station.
Luminous clouds hang from the ceiling to make the soothing rooms feel like an outdoor adventure.
Additionally, there are several soft and hairy sensory boards that are stone-like or rough sandpaper for tactile stimulation.
More than paint and furniture
A lot of research has been done to design the rooms. Interior designer Hannah Shuler was one of the professionals who participated in this project.
On Monday evening, Johnson, Renee Poole, KDM’s director of development, Shuler and others who were involved with the projects met at both schools to find out how the spaces have been used over the past 60 days.
Poole said those two projects had more than 60 volunteers who gave of their time with more than 500 volunteer hours. These hours do not reflect the planning and research that went on for months, she said.
Blount County Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher was instrumental in Project Porter. He is a school alumnus and donated $ 5,000 from his Tom Hatcher Charity for the makeover. He visited on Monday to see the play he helped create.
Porter’s principal Judy Pearson was present at her school and told KDM she had seen many students make good use of the space. There is a boy who cannot sit in the noisy cafeteria so he comes here to participate in the activities offered.
The old space gets a makeover
In addition to the treehouse room divided into quadrants, there is an area around it that has been designed to resemble a Porter’s town park. It is large enough for classes to come spend time and can be used as a reward. The skateboards are hung on the wall. A local artist created a mural on a wall.
Pearson added that students from other elementary schools in Blount County have come to use Porter’s new room.
She spoke about some kindergarten students who took advantage of the room. They come and synchronize with their mind and body and are able to return directly to class, without falling behind in their classwork.
âThey will be entering first year in the fall ready to go,â said the principal. âAcademically, socially and emotionally, this is what you have done for our children,â she told KDM. “That’s why it matters so much to us.”
KDM is confident that it will be able to resume residential renovations in the fall. It will also support other legacy projects as needed.
KDM volunteers also traveled to Rockford on Monday to review the space there. Assistant Director Nichole McCord was in attendance along with Project Manager Niki Hudson, Project Administrator Maressa Potter, Shuler and Dean Vance, Skilled Workforce.
KDM has done CDC rooms at Heritage and William Blount summits. KDM calls these legacy projects non-residential makeover because of their lasting effect.
âWe are able to serve more community members for many years,â Johnson said. “With these legacy projects, we are making an impact on all of these children and children in the future.”