ATHENS, Ohio — Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9893 is more than a social club for U.S. military veterans and their families. The Albany post is a major community benefactor, raising funds for everything from college scholarships to a new digital sign outside the Albany Fire Department on Washington Road.
And for the past five years, the post has been especially generous to Beacon School at 801 W. Union St. in Athens.
Last Friday, Feb. 24 the post presented Beacon School with $15,000, thanks to 72 participants in the fifth annual Polar Bear Plunge at Lake Snowden on Feb. 5, organized by the VFW and WSEO 107.7. That donation brings the Albany VFW’s support for Beacon School to $54,000.
Smiling through tears, Beacon School Principal Becky Martin presented a plaque to the Albany VFW Post 9893, which read:
“The Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities congratulates the Albany VFW Post 9893 for their success and the fifth annual Polar Bear Plunge hosted Feb. 4, 2023 at Lake Snowden. Your actions to bring awareness to the mission of the ACBDD community and the financial contributions [will] impact the students of Beacon School for generations to come. We thank you all so much for your support.”
Tokens of gratitude quickly piled up as Beacon students and staff presented cards, posters and expressed their gratitude to Albany VFW Post 9893 Commander Brian Johnson and the VFW.
“When you turn around and you look at all these beautiful faces and smiles, it makes it all worthwhile,” said Johnson. “As long as you guys have a need, we will be here.”
Proceeds from the 2023 plunge “will be used to purchase updated vision and hearing equipment so we can appropriately and accurately measure our students’ abilities in those areas, and make referrals as needed,” according to Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities Assistant Supt. Arian Smedley
The VFW’s donations have already made a difference at the school. Recent renovations of the sensory rooms were “completed largely with the proceeds from last year’s Polar Bear Plunge,” Smedley said. The rooms were dedicated to the VFW, as part of last Friday’s event.
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Friday’s celebration included tours of the current sensory rooms at the school and a ribbon cutting for another sensory room, made possible in part by support from the VFW and Polar Bear Plunge participants.
Kendall Berry, a speech therapist at Beacon, explained how the school can help children regulate themselves through experiences that meet their sensory needs.
“While somebody might not like nails on a chalkboard, or the feeling of Styrofoam — that might be really frustrating — a lot of our students might be overstimulated by lights or loud noises, or just having a lot of expectations placed on them throughout the day — the feeling of keeping clothes on at school,” Berry said. “It really could be a vast amount of sensory overload, or an underactive sensory system.”
The school’s two sensory rooms cater to both “overload” and “underactive” sensory needs, Berry explained.
The rooms differ noticeably. One is dark with special lighting, and includes a “crash pad” and tent-like structure, and a rainbow-lighted bubble machine. The other has bright colors, with ocean imagery and a slide/playground-like structure, hop-scotch, swings and more. The brighter room has playground-like equipment made possible by last year’s Polar Bear Plunge, Berry said.
Sensory overload refers to becoming overwhelmed by one’s sensory input. According to Insider, it is associated with certain health conditions more than others, such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, though anyone can experience it.
Kids who are feeling more “underactive” may need more sensory input to liven up, Berry said. This can include playing or swinging, before ending in a more regulating activity.
Berry estimated that Beacon School has had sensory rooms for around a decade, though they have varied in what they contain. Sensory rooms not only help students regulate themselves during the school day, but also to help the students identify and meet their needs over the long term.
“So, over time we’re really teaching them that in our lives [as] they get older, they know, ‘OK, I can either go for a walk, I can go try to find a swing somewhere available,” Berry said. “They’ve got their toolbox of things that are ready to use.”
Everyone has strategies for sensory or emotional regulation, Berry said. “Some of us use weighted blankets, some of us take medication. All of those are ways to help us regulate,” she said. “Everybody’s got their own thing … It’s just a matter of, does that sensory need rule your life.”
Berry has seen the difference the sensory rooms make in her work as a speech therapist.
“When I’ve seen students [here] in the past, I’ve actually gotten way more language out of them,” she said. “Because when you’re regulated, you can communicate better.”
The VFW can’t take all the credit for the post’s donations to Beacon School, commander Johnson said. He and other post members stressed that “without the local fire departments and EMS rescue units, it couldn’t happen.”
Ultimately, Johnson said, the post is a conduit for the generosity of many.
“The big thing is that it’s not the VFW giving them the money,” Johnson said. “It’s the community. We’re just the coordinator of the event. But it’s actually the community that’s given the money.”
Photos by Keri Johnson / Athens County Independent.
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