MONTHLY FEATURE

Three young students and two adults being pulled in a dark blue kayak strap to a wooden dolly, two other adults walk alongside as they travel down a school hallway lined with wall banners.

ADVENTURE DAY BRINGS LAUGHTER TO GUILFORD SCHOOL FOR EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN

Story and photo courtesy of Guilford County Schools

Every year, Vicki Simmons brings the outside in to her gym in Jamestown.

She’ll have at least 10 stations. There’s a putt-putt course in one corner, an archery range a dozen steps away, and in the middle, two large pieces of plywood perched on planks of wood resemble something like a seesaw.

Then there are the kayaks. Or really, the kayaks on wheels.

Simmons watches kids get helped into the kayaks, and buoyed by pillows or the comfort of a lap, volunteers pull the kids through the hallways and turn a tiled floor into a lazy river.

The whole time, Simmons listens. Squeals and laughs echo in a main hallway three stories high. It’s the sound of unabashed, amusement-park joy in the most unlikely of places.

A school.

Simmons does love making that happen.

Four years ago, she started an Outdoor Adventure Day where she works at Haynes-Inman Education Center. She brought in volunteers, teamed up with Greensboro city employees and watched students with severe cognitive and physical disabilities have the time of their lives.

Simmons did that again earlier this school year.

She’s the physical education teacher at Haynes-Inman. Parents call her “Miss Vicki.” She has worked with disabled students for nearly 20 years, first at Gateway Education Center in northeast Greensboro and now at Haynes-Inman in Jamestown.

She got the idea for the school’s Outdoor Adventure Day by standing on the banks of Lake Brandt.

She watched city employees lift a large woman from her wheelchair and place her in a kayak. Then, once employees paddled her out to the middle of the lake, Simmons listened. The woman couldn’t stop laughing.

When she came in, Simmons heard the woman say: “That’s the freest I’ve ever felt.”

Simmons still remembers that.

The woman in the wheelchair laughed like a kid, and it gave Simmons an idea for her own kids, her students, the children she knows by first name.

“God gives you a great brain, great arms and legs and great creativity,” Simmons says. “And you’ve got to do for other people.”

Haynes-Inman opened seven years ago. The school now has 125 students, from the age of 3 to 22, and the curriculum helps its students learn how, as principal Kevin Carr says, “talk back to the world.”

Many students can’t talk. They’re medically fragile, and their disabilities run the gamut from severe autism to cerebral palsy to Rett syndrome, a rare genetic neurological and developmental disorder that affects the way the brain develops.

So, the students at Haynes-Inman don’t really get a chance to golf or shoot an arrow or ride in a kayak. But they do once a year on Outdoor Adventure Day.

That happened this year, and Jaime Austyn came.

She wanted to see her daughter, Lilly, get into the kayak and squeal. Lilly is 6, and she has Rett syndrome.

Lilly has attended Haynes-Inman since she was 3, and the school has helped Lilly maintain her quality of life and calm her mom’s concerns over leaving her oldest child at school.

Austyn says she trusts Haynes-Inman, and she felt it five minutes after walking into the school that first day.

“Lilly is a very happy child despite what she has to deal with, but to see that joy, that happiness, that smile, it helped me remember what’s important,” says Austyn, a hair stylist and married mother of two. “You know what I mean? To see her so happy. It’s beautiful.”

Haynes-Inman draws parents like Austyn from all over.

They stay put and commute to jobs at least an hour away or they turn down jobs in other states so their children can come to Haynes-Inman, a school with 19 classrooms.

Parents see their children work with a fleet of experts -- physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists and specialists educated in helping the hearing and visually impaired.

And parents see their children work with teachers and teacher assistants who have years of experience teaching the disabled.

Soon, parents believe. They take to heart what’s written on the eight banners that hang in the three-story hallway at Haynes-Inman. Each banner contains one word like “compassion” and “dignity,” “respect” and “hope.”

Those words seem to fit.

“I tell people that when I leave here, I feel like I’ve been to church,” says Patsy Austin, a longtime GTCC teacher.

Austin brought her early education students to volunteer Tuesday during Haynes-Inman’s Outdoor Adventure Day.

Parents volunteer, too. Parents like Avery Bernstein.

Her oldest son, Eddie, attends Haynes-Inman. He’s 6, and he has a profound brain injury.

Bernstein was told that she could never take Eddie home from the hospital. Eddie eventually came home. But for four years, Eddie didn’t smile and didn’t laugh.

That changed when he came to Haynes-Inman.

Bernstein saw the change at Outdoor Adventure Day. She captured on her iPhone a video of her son sitting in the lap of a volunteer and feeling the pull of a bow and the swoosh of an arrow hitting a target at least 20 feet away.

Beside Bernstein stood Jennifer Phelps. She manages Greensboro’s Lake Higgins, and every year like several other employees from Greensboro’s Parks and Recreation Department, she comes to Haynes-Inman to volunteer for Outdoor Adventure Day.

“I see some of the same faces, and I know they enjoy it, and I know they know what they’re doing,” she says. “They remember doing archery and getting into the kayak, and you can see that they’re happy. I see it in their faces.

“And you know, when I watch them, I spend the whole day with tears under my eyes.”

As Phelps helped another student, Simmons stood by the wooden-plank seesaw and listened.

She and her volunteers had spent hours turning her gym into a carnival. Ask her why – the work, the planning, the care she takes with her students -- and she’ll point to a banner above the gym door. It reads:

Take from this P.E. class its compassion.

Take from this gym its hope.

Take from this school its kindness.

Return them not, but return.

Simmons laughs and asks.

“It’s that great?”