Since opening its doors last April, Blue Bird Market also has opened up hearts and interests for Wilderness Trace Child Development Center, a local preschool for children from birth to age 5 with and without disabilities.
Libby Suttles, marketing director for the center and coordinator of Blue Bird Market, said shoppers who visit Blue Bird Market to browse its donated furniture, dishes and various other home decor items are always curious about the cause.
“I think one of the greatest benefits of Blue Bird Market is our connection made to people,” Suttles said. “People always say, ‘Well, what’s this all about?’”
Essentially, Blue Bird Market is all about raising money for the development center, and the center is all about children — those with disabiities and those that are “typical.”
Wilderness Trace is about innovating how children with “different abilities” interact with each other, as one teacher put it. It’s about taking joy in the small accomplishments along with the large ones.
And Wilderness Trace is all about children like Chris Vandivier.
Chris is 3 years old and has been attending the center since August. Like his peers, he enjoys playing pretend, going outside, and drawing. His favorite color is green, and he can be caught singing Taylor Swift’s “Mean” at any given moment. Chris will even tell you he has a girlfriend, Anastacia, one of his five classmates, or “friends” as the center likes to call them.
But you won’t see Chris running around the way his friends do, although that doesn’t stop him from scooting his way to wherever he desires.
Chris has spina bifida, a birth defect found before he was born that involves incomplete closure of the spine. As a result of spina bifida, Chris also has hydrocephalus, a condition where water-like fluid is trapped in the skull because it’s unable to drain from the brain. Chris’ mother, Tina Vandivier, found out about Chris’ condition when she was 20 weeks pregnant.
“We were told by a doctor in Lexington that he wouldn’t reach his first birthday, and he’s about to turn 4,” Vandivier said.
Vandivier said Chris has shown a lot of improvement since beginning at the center.
“He’s singing songs that I’ve never sang to him,” Vandivier said. “He’s counting more and almost has his alphabet down pat.”
For Chris’ teacher, Wendy Logan, it’s the smallest things a child learns to do that are most rewarding, whether it be learning a new word or taking a step for the first time. Chris clearly demonstrated Logan’s philosophy when his mother sat him down and with the help of a table and his braces, he held himself up on his feet.
Chris’ mother proudly stated he’s been doing the maneuver for a couple of months. “He’s better,” Logan said. “But he’s a big trickster. Sometimes you don’t know if he can’t do it or if he doesn’t want to. Right when you’ll give up, he’ll do it.”
Logan said Chris is always excited to start the day when he arrives at his preschool class. The room — filled with color, light, beanbags, pillows and an abundance of play-space — resembles that of a regular preschool classroom, only it has fewer children and more adults.
“So we can focus on all of their individual needs,” Logan said.
In addition to the teacher-student ratio, Wilderness Trace, a community partner of Heart of Kentucky United Way, is equipped with appropriate chairs for children such as Chris and works to accomodate any special needs child, which is a large part of what Blue Bird Market helps fund.
“It’s very unique,” said Marcy Cummings, occupational therapist at the center. “You’re not going to see these things in a regular school.”
Logan said Chris and other children with different abilities model appropriate behavior demonstrated by the “typical” children. But she said it can be difficult to keep typicals like Ava Muncie, a 4-year-old in Chris’ class, patient when answering questions.
“Sometimes I have to give them a look,” Logan said. “Ask them to wait their turn and give someone else a chance.”
Logan said it is remarkable how accepting the children are of each other.
“I think the typical children notice there is a difference, but it’s no big deal to them,” Logan said. “Children love helping Chris. The big thing is who gets to push Chris.”
Ava is one of Chris’ greatest helpers. During lessons, she often can be heard telling Chris, “You can do it.” Ava said she and Chris play together often.
“Well, he’s a nice boy. Chris is a nice little boy,” Ava said, with a serious face. “And Chris really, really loves me.”
Suttles, a mother to a special needs son herself, said the children’s attitudes toward differences should be mimicked by adults.
“I wish we’d kept that ability as we became adults,” Suttles said, noting it wasn’t long ago when children with disabilites were institutionalized.
Another benefit found at the center that most preschools don’t offer is the teachers’ subtle use of sign language.
“Sometimes I think it’s just easier to visualize, especially if you have hearing or processing issues,” Suttles said.
Logan agreed and added that using sign language, along with verbal language, can speed up a child’s communication growth.
“It’s not that we’re trying to teach the children sign language as the only language they use,” Logan said. “But paired with verbal, they pick up on communicating with others. And with some of our children, they do need the sign, because they do not have the verbal communication skills.”
Logan said Chris has improved at communicating since joining her class, with the help of speech therapy. He is talking more clearly and slowly, which makes him a better communicator all around and able to to take direction more easily.
The center’s educators bid farewell to the children once they turn 5.
Watching Chris and his friends can make one ponder, where will these children go next?
“Our goal is for children who graduate with the preschool education to be able to enter a typical school, a typical classroom,” Suttles said. “Many of them, based on their needs, may be in a special education classroom. But they’re so much more prepared, having been here.”
Logan is confident Chris will continue on to a typical class setting after leaving the center.
The children’s time at Wilderness Trace could be compared to young birds in a nest, Suttles said, which influenced the title of Blue Bird Market.
“Amy and I both love birds,” Suttles said. “It just seems happy, and we talked about the fact that when the kids come here, they are kind of like fragile birds, and this is kind of their nest. They get stronger, and they go on.”
Shoppers at Blue Bird Market can be reminded of the cause they are helping while at the store. Profiles of students can be seen among the shelves and merchandise. The profiles include pictures and descriptions of the children.
Trey took his first steps at Wilderness Trace and wants to be an engineer when he grows up, while Kreyd is described as a “charmer” who loves school and learning. Gaddy is called “the diva” and has a social nature and loves sharing with others.
Suttles and other workers joke that the store is the best kept secret in Danville. “But I don’t want to be the best kept secret, I don’t know who does,” she said.
Amy Longwill, executive director of Wilderness Trace, said she was skeptical of opening Blue Bird Market when Suttles first pitched the idea, but quickly changed her mind.
“It’s definitely brought in some revenue,” Longwill said. “But our purpose isn’t just to gain revenue, but to also increase exposure to the center which is young kids with or without disabilities.”
Everything at Blue Bird Market is donated to the store, but all of the revenue is given directly to the center. Customers may choose to round up to the nearest dollar after tax as a donation. The store is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. the first Friday of each month and every Saturday at 1857 B in the old ATR facility on the U.S. 127 Bypass.
To learn more about the center and Blue Bird Market, visit www.wtcdc.org.