Updated: Aug 2
Three-year-old Envy’s eyes are bright. They dart throughout the room as she keeps track of classmate Alessandro. The boy is on a mission to bring her a favorite toy. Her stander supports her and keeps her body erect so she can interact upright with the other children. The toy is colorful with buttons she pushes to make sounds. The duo are best friends.
Envy is part of an inclusion class at Fleshman-Pratt Education Center on the Mills Home campus in Thomasville. The class is designed for both typical and atypical students. “We are trailblazing,” says Weekday Education Director Brooke Child. “We intend to set a standard of excellence for the care of infant and toddlers with special needs.”
Water Day is a highlight for all the swimsuit-clad children. They run around as sprinklers spray them. There are water tables with cups and pails that are filled and then dumped again and again. Envy sits in the middle of the festivities, her feet emerged in a clear plastic pool. Her feet splash as she drips with water and the area around her padded chair becomes drenched. Smiles and laughter are evidence of the joy of play.
The Fleshman-Pratt Education Center in Thomasville offers the highest quality, developmentally appropriate classroom programs
for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. This 5-star rated, state licensed center also offers inclusion classes customized to meet the specific needs of intellectually and/or developmentally disabled boys and girls. “Envy is part of our inclusion class,” explains Director Brooke Child. “Through the class, our goal is to provide Envy a quality educational experience and to help the children in her class engage with her. They learn to consider her needs. They play together and laugh together. Being together becomes normal and they don’t focus on her disability.
She is their friend.” The inclusion class is comprised of typically developing children and atypical children with special needs. A child may look typical on the outside but need extra help—some children’s needs are not as great while others need long term and specialized care.
Envy has a very rare condition called Dandy-Walker Syndrome (DWS). It is a congenital condition where the cerebellum does not develop normally. The cerebellum is an area at the back of the brain that controls movement and balance. With DWS, parts of the cerebellum may never develop or may be very small. =“I learned when I was between my fifth and sixth month of pregnancy that something was not right,” says Envy’s mom Cheyenne. “It is something an expectant mom never wants to hear. You worry for the baby. I worried I would not be able to care for her like I cared for my two older children. Learning that Envy would never have a childhood like them— it changed my life. ”
Parents with very young special needs children have few daycare options. Cheyenne recalls the relief in finding the Center. “I am self-employed and needed daycare for Envy and her younger brother King. I called and called and every program I spoke with said no. When I called Fleshman-Pratt, they said yes.”
An inclusion classroom is comprised of one lead teacher, an assistant teacher, and no more than five children. Three of the students are “typically developing” students who help their classmates learn simply by interacting with them through their daily class activities and routines.
Due to DWS, Envy’s needs can be demanding. It takes trained staff like Gabby Kellison, Envy’s lead teacher, to meet those needs. Envy cannot sit or stand unassisted. She has difficulty eating and cannot speak. Gabby (along with Envy’s therapists) implements an individualized family service plan to meet Envy’s needs and to help achieve goals established with the family. “Gabby goes above and beyond,” says Cheyenne. “It’s important for a mom with a special needs child to have a caregiver listen, to learn the child’s routine, and invest themselves in getting to know the family. Gabby listens and I feel like we are working together.”
Kellison has provided care for “little people” for 15 years. She has dedicated her life to the task, and finds working with special needs children rewarding. Envy has become stronger in the two years she has been in the inclusion class. “It can take 20-30 minutes to feed Envy,” says Cheyenne. “Envy has gained a pound and 13 ounces in the last few months. The weight gain alone is a great sign that she is flourishing. She has difficulty gaining weight and you have to be
attentive. It’s hard work and Gabby does a great job.”
Children like Envy do not grow out of DWS. Envy’s world will need to adapt to her needs for her to thrive. Through an inclusion class, she can exist with other boys and girls and reach her life goals. It is amazing how the other children benefit by being a part of her life as much as she benefits from being a part of theirs. “I believe Envy and other special needs children thrive when included in main- stream environments like our classes,” says Child. “Whatever the needs, we want to help. Whether it’s a small need met or a longterm commitment, we will stand with the child and the family.”
Although she does not speak, Envy communicates. She communicates when she is content or when she needs something. She can be cross, but she giggles and coos, too. She laughs with the other children in her class and her three brothers at home. Cheyenne has never heard Envy say the words “mommy” or “I
love you,” simple thing she took for granted with her other children. But she dreams of the day when the two can sit across from each other and talk.
“Hope for me is a very big part of my life with Envy,” says Cheyenne. “I hope one day she will be able to sit up. I hope one day she will be able to roll over by herself and be able to mov independently, grab a toy, and play unattended. It will not come easy. It will be hard work for her. It will be hard work for our family. It will take the help of people like Gabby who will come into her life, care for her, and work hard. Despite the challenges, I am hopeful.”
From helping churches establish daycare programs in the 1960s to leading the way with the addition of inclusion classes, Week-day Education serves as a leader in Christian early childhood education.
To learn more visit https://www.bchfamily.org/programs/weekday-education
Written by Jim Edminson, Editor of Charity & Children