"Oasis" provides therapy for special students

August 11, 2008 4:45:13 PM PDT
A peaceful oasis awaits special needs students this school year who attend Harris County Department of Education's Academic and Behavior Center WestThrough community gifts and the creative expertise of visionary landscaper and businessman Jeff Law, a calming garden called the "Oasis" blooms in the outdoor atrium at ABC West in southwest Houston.

The sound of water trickles from a donated fountain, providing solace for students during the school day. Plants glorify the space and encourage visits from bees and butterflies. A gratis picnic table allows students to visit the compact Shangri-La to write in journals or to simply decompress.

The project was spearheaded by teachers Bette Channell and Cordegus Monette as they brainstormed about the possibilities for the plant-less, unused space. The teachers felt that a garden would be especially calming for the special needs students, many of whom are emotionally disturbed.

Channell and Law, both Heights neighbors, spoke about the possibility of renovating the space as a community project.

"I knew Bette was a teacher," said Law, who owns a tropical xeriscaping company called "Ka*Bloom!" and Indian Summer Lodge, an event center and garden. "I had troubled teenage years myself. I used to teach and I missed the interaction with kids."

Law showed up at the school in May with garden tools in hand and worked with about a dozen ABC teens interested in assisting. Students had previously removed debris and weeds from the area. They uncovered paver stones, washing them to reveal renewed colorful surfaces.

Donations of plants like aloe vera, hummingbird bushes, salvia, switch grass, philodendron and variegated flax lilies were delivered and planted along with soil. Plaques were used to identify the plants and the students who set them in soil. Law told students how to care for the plants.

Students like Richard Ibarra, 15, became involved as vested owners of the garden. Ibarra says he looks forward to eating lunch in the transformed space.

Law says the intent was two-fold: to teach the urban teens about the environment and to allow them to realize they have the ability to make changes in their own lives by changing the usable space within the garden.

ABC West Principal Faye Wells says summer school students and staff continued to water and weed the garden throughout the summer. She looks forward to seeing the eager looks on the faces of returning students who inspect the garden's growth.

Students at ABC West are ages 5-22 and are referred by their home districts, explained Special Schools Senior Director Deborah Johnson. They may have emotional disturbances, mental retardation, autism spectrum disorder and other impairments, but they are people first, just like you and me, she said.

"HCDE's Academic and Behavior Centers (ABC) assist any of 26 area school districts in providing educational programs for students with disabilities," said Johnson.

ABC features small classes with low student-to-teacher ratios and highly trained staff. Instruction is individualized as determined by (school) admission, review, dismissal committees (ARDs) and accomplished in age-appropriate classes to ensure academic and behavioral growth. The ABC goal is successful student reintegration into the home district.

The mission at ABC is "to instill in all students a commitment to learning through relevant and challenging experiences." Teacher and coach Channell says the garden is the perfect venue for learning life lessons: that hard work is rewarded.

Companies making donations to the Oasis garden are: Jeff Law's Ka*Bloom!/Indian Summer Lodge, San Jacinto Stone Company, Buchanan's Native Plants, Joshua's Native Plants, A Cut Above, Chuck Scianna/Sim-Tex, Tim Phelen/Waller Co. Land Company, Jan Laughlin and Chris and Charlie Munden.

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