One afternoon outside Sandhills Children’s Center, a 3-year-old child stood waiting to be picked up from school. He was standing beside another young child in a wheelchair. When the 3 year-old’s mother got out of the car to gather her toddler and his things for the trip home, he smiled and looked back at his friend.
“It’s okay, mommy,” he said. “He’s just like me, his legs just don’t work.”
Melanie Carnes, director of the Rockingham campus, said this story is only one among many like it that could be shared regarding the relationships between students with special developmental needs and their typically developing classmates at Sandhills Children’s Center.
“When we were only operating out of Moore County we were all special needs,” she said. “Now we serve children with and without disabilities.”
In 2008 Sandhills Children’s Center opened its Rockingham campus at 108 Crow Run, in the facility that formerly housed Country Day Care. Before then, students boarded a bus every morning to ride to the Moore County location.
“Now we’re serving students in their own community,” Carnes said. “This means parents can be more involved with teachers and therapists, where before, a lot of the parents didn’t have access to transportation. Research shows that children learn from each other. These children are learning at a very early age that those with disabilities are not different, and nothing to be afraid of. They are growing together and developing friendships. It benefits everyone.”
The private, nonprofit organization has earned a five-star rating from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and is licensed by the state department of public instruction. The facilities must meet standards established by these entities in order to renew this status on a three-year cycle. It is also a partner of both the Richmond and Moore County public school systems, Child and Family Mental Health Services of North Carolina, Partners for Children and Families and the University of North Carolina TEACCH Autism Program. TEACCH is an acronym that stands for teaching, expanding, appreciating, collaborating and cooperating, and holistic.
Staff at the center aim to keep improving the Rockingham facility through a series of upgrades. A top priority is improving the school’s playground. Enter the Cole Foundation, which has offered Sandhills Children’s Center a challenge grant opportunity.
“We’ve also had a long-standing partnership with the Cole Foundation,” said Asa Moran, community relations representative for the center. “They have offered us the opportunity this year to receive a challenge grant — meaning that if we can raise $15,000 Cole will donate $25,000 to go along with that. The state has told us that upgrading the Rockingham campus playground, making the equipment safer and more accessible, is a big part of that.”
The center has set a June 1 deadline for raising the money even though the Cole Foundation did not set any time constraints, Moran said.
“The state evaluation is happening in October, and we wanted to make sure we have enough time to prepare for it,” he said.
A series of events will take place to help raise money for the playground between now and June 1:
* Pennies for Playgrounds jars will be on counters in local stores, clearly marked to identify them as fundraiser jars for Sandhills Children’s Center;
* A direct mail campaign;
* A cookie dough sale;
* The Pigs-4-Kids barbecue sale from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 23 at the Rockingham campus; and
* A duck derby at Hitchcock Creek.
The duck derby is still in the planning phase but center representatives are working with the city of Rockingham, Moran said.
“Kim Williams (events coordinator) has been helpful. We’ve been working with John Massey (city planner). Mayor (Steve) Morris is very excited about this, too.”
All of the events are designed to bring the community together and raise the funds needed, as well as clear up misconceptions about Sandhills Children’s Center.
“I can’t tell you how many times I hear a parent say ‘Oh, my child can’t go there. It’s only for people with special needs,’” Carnes said. “What we offer is an inclusive approach to education, serving students with and without special needs together and creating an enriching environment for early childhood learning.”