“A Special Kind of School”
Lake Hills School is tucked away in Howey-in-the-Hills and although it is a Lake County public school, I hadn’t heard of it before. I viewed the school website but still didn’t realize the full extent of how special this place was. It took a visit there to open my eyes to their hidden operation and feel the magic of the school.
I headed to the Teacher’s Lounge, meeting friendly faces with every minute that passed. The large lounge is set up in the middle of all the action on campus with massive windows that lets you peer into the world around you. Through the left side windows, the outdoor recreation area is brimming with action. On the right you can see the bustle of activity in the cafeteria. Then directly behind is a view of the wide hallway that leads to the classrooms. Within minutes, a student took off running down the hall, teachers racing behind her to lead her gently back to the cafeteria. I met teachers and talked with them about planning for retirement, all while eyeing the playground outside. I became curious about the students when I saw a kid bounce a ball in his own way. And others walked in laps around the playground with a teacher clutching their hand. My eyes fell on a contraption that looked like a swing set for wheelchairs, and I watched amazed as a teacher wheeled a student onto the set and clasped them in for a swinging ride. The student relaxed his head back and admired the clouds. I had never seen anything like it.
Each student walked differently. Shouted things loudly. Held the teacher’s hands for balance and support. Waved to me. I realized that this special needs school housed students suffering from varying physical and mental disabilities. The teachers are extra patient, extra loving, and extra tough. They have a special dose of heart gifted to them in abundance. They are called to this profession, angels sent to kids that need more love and attention than the average student in Lake County. Why are they here and what makes them love their job?
According to Vilmary Tautiva, she says that she could never do for these kids what they do for her. She witnesses unconditional, sacrificial love on a regular basis and her teacher’s heart bursts. Whether it is the way they use their DynaVox to ask someone for a high five or help another student get their jacket on; the kids reach out and even with their disabilities are fully capable of serving and loving others. When the staff suffer a loss of a student, they mourn the short life that was given to one soul to make a difference on this planet. And what a difference these kids make. Their smiles, their progress in academics and social capabilities, their perseverance through difficulties inspire those all around them. Vilmary wouldn’t choose any other place to work.
Teacher of the Year Kristen Kasha beams with joy when she talks about teaching at Lake Hills School. She feels like a freed bird able to explore the world of Assistive Communication and language development. She says, “Everything is a language activity,” and she works actively with her students to push them to that next level. With the support of the principal, curriculum, and specially formatted classes, Kristen feels empowered to gently prod the students to reach their highest potential; whatever level that may be. She takes the privilege of education and gifts it to students that may take a few more days or even years to understand the material. But that gift of interaction means everything to the kids. Kristen and the other teachers are bringing the world to the kids and giving them a chance to engage with subjects like biology or math; using calculators.
The kids at Lake Hills School are 80% non-verbal. They make up the “ICU of education” as Vilmary Tautiva would describe them. Some are missing limbs, some have debilitating physical disabilities, others struggle mentally and physically. Some have low IQ’s, some have higher IQ’s than you would ever guess because they just aren’t able to communicate. There are kids in wheelchairs or that use walkers, and many of them use IPads and DynaVoxes to communicate. These are the kids that the public schools do not have the support to meet their needs, but Lake Hills welcomes with automatic doors and endless accepting hugs. Their staff is chock full of vision specialists, physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, nurses and a principal that is laser-focused on doing what is best for her school. Principal Robin Meyers leads the school with high expectations and the best curriculum on the market. She personalizes it further to meet the needs of the staff and students.
As an outsider, I am amazed at the work ethic and sheer willpower of these teachers. I initially see the disabilities, not knowing about each student like the teachers do. They work with them for hours each day, seeing past the physical and getting to know the heart beating beneath flesh and bone. Lake Hills School goes beyond education and is making an impact in the lives of these students.
If you want to donate to Lake Hills School, please contact Dr. Robin Meyers at email@example.com. With the donations, the school provides technology for the students who are learning alternative ways to communicate. Volunteers are always welcome after approval through Lake County. Their next event is Night to Shine: a prom night for special needs students, sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation. The local event will be hosted by Real Life Christian Church. Volunteer and guest information can be found here: https://real.life/nts/
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