Topeka High project livens up room for special needs students
When Jack Hishmeh would walk through a back hallway of Topeka High School on his way to drumline practice this past fall, he passed a special needs classroom and saw about 20 students who seemed stuck in their own room — and in their own world. Some of the students had cerebral palsy. Others had Down syndrome. Few were able to get out of their classroom — even for lunch. It all got to Hishmeh, 16, who will be a junior at Topeka High when classes begin next week. Finally, late last fall, he went to the special needs teacher, Claudia Shover-Daly, to see what he could do.
“I asked how I could have a time with the students,” Hishmeh said. “She said, ‘How about you start with lunch?’ ”
Soon, Hishmeh gave up eating in the cafeteria with his friends and started going to the special needs classroom for lunch every day. Before long, other friends joined him. In the second semester, Hishmeh switched classes so he could become a peer mentor in the special needs classroom. And by the end of the spring semester, he and his friends had started a group they called “Lunch Buddies,” where they took the special needs students into the cafeteria, where for the first time they had lunch with everybody else.
But this remarkable journey was far from over.
Hishmeh saw some major needs in the special needs classroom. It resembled “a storage room,” he said. And it needed work. So, this summer, he set out to do something about it. Hishmeh solicited grants and made pitches to local businesses in hopes they would come through with donations for a makeover. The first hurdle was to paint the room, which has several sections, and patch holes in the wall, something that was accomplished Thursday when Hishmeh was joined by Zach Pruett, 16, another Topeka High junior, and about 10 employees from Lowe’s home improvement store, which donated paint and related supplies.
“We applied for quite a few grants,” Hishmeh said while taking a short break from his painting detail. “We talked to Lowe’s, and they were the first ones to step up.”
Hishmeh, the son of Joe and Cheryl Hishmeh, said he was motivated to take on the makeover because he “personally wanted a place for these kids to have a good working environment.” He said other Topeka High students turned out Wednesday to help move things away from walls to allow for Thursday’s painting session.
“Our goal,” Hishmeh said, “is to get it all organized and painted and make it look nice.” Eventually, Hishmeh said, he wants to get grants to put in new flooring and also get new cabinets, furnishings and computers for the special needs students. “I just had such a passion for the students in this classroom,” he said. “I felt like these kids deserved more than just a storage room.”
Something else: Hishmeh and the “Lunch Buddies” group have started a new organization for the special needs students they have dubbed “Special Opps” — short for “Special Opportunities.” Already, black T-shirts with gold stenciling — reflecting Topeka High’s school colors — have been made for the group, which Hishmeh said has about 25 members. Pruett, Hishmeh’s classmate, said he was glad to be able to help paint the classroom Thursday for what was such a worthwhile project.
“I really felt God called me to help Jack with this,” Pruett said.
Brian Llamas, assistant store manager for Lowe’s, said he has listened to many proposals from people requesting donations for projects benefiting the community. But never had he heard a presentation like the one young Hishmeh gave a few weeks ago. Llamas said he and fellow assistant store manager Florence Bryant were blown away by Hishmeh’s presentation — and his vision.
“When Jack came in and talked to Florence and me,” Llamas said, “I think it literally was the best presentation I’ve ever seen.” Llamas said Lowe’s Heroes, the community service program of the home improvement store, was a perfect fit for what Hishmeh had in mind. “Our school districts have low budgets as it is,” Llamas said as he stood on a ladder while painting a wall. “They need all the help they can get.”
He said Hishmeh “had a dream,” and for Lowe’s to be able to help turn it into a reality “is something that really hit home for us.”
“I guarantee you this program that he’s got is something that’s going to carry him through his whole life,” Llamas said. “So we’re doing everything we can to help.”