For most families, the daily routine of going to school and learning feels challenging enough. The obstacles in life multiply with the addition of a physical, mental and emotional disability. The dedicated staff at the Fyffe Special Services Center greatly improve the lives of local children facing such extraordinary struggles.
State lawmakers recently toured the Fyffe facility and presented a check to contribute toward improvements to the building and for adding specialized physical education equipment that can be used by wheelchair-bound children.
Director Lee Dalton said the Fyffe Special Services Center serves families in south DeKalb County whose children face a wide range of disabilities and medical needs. A separate facility in Ider under Director Bridgett Ott serves students on the northern end of the county.
“Not all students with special needs attend our center,” Dalton said. “Enrollment is based on the severity of a disability.”
DeKalb County Superintendent Jason Barnett said the center is “a very special place within our school system… comprised of a very dedicated and loving staff that works diligently to serve and meet the needs of our students with multiple, and/or, severe and profound disabilities.”
The Fyffe Special Services Center offers education and skills training for students, ages 3 to 21, identified in at least one of 13 disability areas: Deaf-Blind, Emotional Disability, Hearing Impaired, Intellectual Disability, Multiple Disabilities, Orthopedically Impaired, Other Health Impaired, Specific Learning Disabilities, Speech and Language Impaired, Visually Impaired, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injury, or Developmentally Delayed.
“We have a nurse available to attend to medical needs that arise, and we have access to a certified speech therapist,” Dalton said. “We offer occupational and physical therapy daily.”
The 32 children served by the center’s two classrooms integrate as closely as possible with their non-disabled peers on campus. Crystal Gladden teaches the elementary side while Sabrina Gore teaches the high schoolers.
“The other day, the school held a spirit walk to send the high school football team off to the state title game, and our kids got to participate in that. We try to combine them with their typical peers as much as possible, which is another great thing about being on the Fyffe School campus. The general education population is just used to being around these kids and don’t really see the differences,” Dalton said.
The Child Nutrition Program staff works well with the Center in meeting students’ individual dietary needs.
The state funding presented by local legislators will go to improve the building and add physical education equipment to accommodate the special needs.
“Our students participate in adaptive physical education due to their physical needs. We’re looking to purchase a trike path to get some of our students in wheelchairs on it. In the wintertime, we do indoor physical education within a very small gymnasium area, so we need things for there, as well,” Dalton said.
Maintenance and upkeep to the building such as fresh paint and improvements to restrooms greatly helps morale.
“The students and employees deserve this. It makes it more enjoyable to come into work every day,” Dalton said. “It’s a family here, not a job. I feel like a team captain instead of a boss. We’re all in this together. People are so giving here on this mountain. It’s like a big family. That’s overwhelmingly helpful. People want to help– if they know the need. I have been overwhelmed by people asking me at football games about our program. I try to share what we are doing on social media.”
On the day we visited, students showed their ability to lift and use a leaf blower.
“It’s a great thing to take pride in something and learn work skills,” Dalton said. “There is something for everybody out there. If we love each other, there’s something for all of us to do.”
Barnett said the Center “assists families in finding support systems for their children once they graduate from the Special Service Center. Visiting the center will always brighten your day and leave you with a sense of pride in the work being done to serve our students.”
Assistant Superintendent Pam Gann said both Dalton and Director Bridgett Ott at the Ider facility are “knowledgeable and passionate about the work that they do each day. You will find, at both locations, some of the most hardworking, generous, compassionate, loving staff that one could ever meet. I can’t say enough good things about both groups of staff. And the students… if you are having a bad day, please visit. These children will lift your spirits by just walking in the door. They will love you no matter what. Many folks see disabilities, but oh, what possibilities our students have.”
Gann, who leads the county system’s Special Education programs, said she is happy “to sit down and share some needs with anyone who might be interested in donating money, materials or time.”
Even after 22 years in special education, her new job this semester has led Dalton to gain insight into her own priorities as a parent.
“My own child is near graduating. I’ve pushed hard academically, but I’ve come to realize that the best goal we can wish for our children is for them to be happy and to love others.”
Dalton said the start of the school year presents the biggest challenges. She makes a point to ride every bus route so she can understand first-hand what the experience holds for each child.
“I want to understand the unique struggles faced by each of the students,” she said. “I hand out my cards to parents and encourage them to contact me if they have questions. People want you to hear them and understand their needs with compassion and love.”