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THIS WEEK'S FEATURED STORIES

Raising JOY: Summer program for disabled students goes down on the farm

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

It was shortly after lunch on Tuesday when the JOY School director, Martha Insignares, strolled into the office at Pawleys Island Presbyterian Church. She was looking for a lollipop as a mid-afternoon treat, but found something even sweeter in her mailbox: a $6,000 donation from the Georgetown County United Way.

“I’ll keep this close to my heart,” said Insignares, in her 19th year with JOY School. “This is such a giving community. This shows the benefit of all those giving just a little out of their paychecks to United Way. Here is the money going right back to students in Georgetown County.”

Organizations like the United Way, the Knights of Columbus and Pawleys Island Kiwanis Club have allowed the JOY School to carry out its mission of aiding children and adults with developmental disabilities for 27 years. Behind the monetary donations are a network of employees and volunteers aiding the roughly 50 students – aged 6 to 52 – with activities such as music, arts and crafts, physical education, drama and gardening. Students also receive formal classroom instruction, where the emphasis is on basic skills such as memorizing and writing their name, address and phone number, as well as telling time and handling money.

“I love the children,” said Sherry Vanderhorst, who has worked with the JOY School for 10 years. “The work we do here is very rewarding. This is something that God has put in my heart. I’m blessed to be able to work with these children.”

“I knew some of the students here from school,” said McCallee Watson, a volunteer who is in sixth-grade. “I see them all the time when I’m in school and they are always very nice. I love being here and being able to help out.”

JOY School was founded by the Rev. Frank Holsclaw, pastor at Pawleys Island Presbyterian, and his wife, Gayle, as a way of providing services for their daughters, who both suffered from developmental disabilities. The school holds classes Monday through Friday in June and July and also holds Saturday sessions from September through April.

Courses are designed to supplement what students have learned in school. In Georgetown County, special needs students attend public school from age 3 through 21. Afterward, they can apply for admission to state adult programs, but face long waiting lists before being accepted.

About 10 JOY School students are in their late 20s or older and are eligible for adult programs.

“It’s the family’s choice as to what they want to do,” Insignares said. “Some choose for their children to attend, some want them to stay at home. But our goals don’t change. We want our students to become as independent as possible.

“We put a lot of focus on having them learn their name and address, but we also emphasize managing money and telling time. They need to understand the processes of buying things like food and clothing. They also have to understand the importance of time, and how long it will take them to get ready, and be on time for appointments they have or their jobs.”

While individual employees and volunteers form the heart of the JOY School program, students also receive help from outside groups like the Waccamaw High girls’ volleyball team and the youth group from Englewood Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, N.C., which makes a visit to the school each summer.

“I had a boyfriend and a best friend within five minutes,” said Melaina Moore, a Waccamaw High volleyball player. “We had a blast. The students are so much fun to be around.”

“You felt like you were part of something special,” said Sienna Herndon, another member of the team. “My favorite part of the day was when we were doing drama. We put on skits and had puppet shows and everyone had a great time. The students really know their movies.”

Moore and Herndon say they are interested in further volunteer work at the school. After visiting last summer, the Englewood youth group members were so inspired they convinced their church to start its own JOY School.

“They call it HOPE School,” Insignares said. “They’ve held classes on Saturdays and were also able to do one week this summer. They’ve had a fantastic response and are looking to do more.”

With JOY School set to wrap up its session next week, Insignares took time to reflect on the summer full of activities. Included in that list were visiting Ripley’s Aquarium, attending a Legends concert and taking a pontoon boat tour along the Waccamaw River. Another highlight was getting to swim in the new pool at Teach My People.

“We are so grateful to Teach My People,” Insignares said. “It’s a beautiful pool and it’s big enough to accommodate everyone. When we used to go swimming, we would have to go in smaller groups. But at Teach My People, we could get everyone together at the same time. It was one big outing and even our students with limited mobility were able to float around and have a good time with their friends.”

Perhaps the most meaningful experience of the summer was the weekly visit to the adaptive gardens at Thornhill Farm in McClellanville. Students were able to tend plants, learn about composting and care for free-range chickens.

“They were able to make connections about where our food comes from,” Insignares said. “They were able to get eggs from the chickens and reach into the plants and get things like cucumbers. It helped them understand that food just doesn’t show up on your plate or at the grocery store. They saw the processes involved and it was a great discovery for them.”

The Thornhill Farm trips were so popular that they have become the theme for JOY School’s annual closing show, titled “Down on JOY Farm.” It will be held on July 28 at 7 p.m. at Pawleys Island Presbyterian. Admission is free, but seating is limited.

“The show is a chance for our students to be in the spotlight,” Insignares said. “It’s all about them. They love to be applauded and have everyone be so proud of them.

“It’s going to be a real hoedown. We have a barn on stage, straw hats, overalls and everything you need for a square dancing party. We would love for people in the community to come join us.”

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