The hallways of High Hopes are quiet in the early afternoon. Students are napping or teachers are in their classrooms instructing and noise is at a minimum. Step into the building in the early A.M. however and you’d be hard pressed to find a quiet space on campus. Energy is flowing, voices are happy and students, both typically developing (60%) and those with special needs (40%), come together from all walks of life, to prepare for a great day at school. Children with Spina Bifida to Down syndrome to autism learn alongside their typically developing friends and the effect is profound for both.
Former Southern Exposure publisher and founder, Brandy Blanton, became very familiar with the ebbs and flows in these halls after High Hopes came to be a place of solace, comfort and rescue in 2015, when her granddaughter Elliott Grace Castro (affectionately nicknamed Ellie G) was born on May 30, 2015 with an extremely rare terminal genetic disorder called rhizomelic chondrodysplasia punctata, or RCDP, a very rare form of dwarfism that only affects a few dozen children in the world.
The Castro/Blanton families quickly learned of the incredible services offered through High Hopes when Ellie G started receiving therapy at four-weeks-old. Their family was so profoundly impacted that Brandy left her position with the magazine and came on board with High Hopes as their new director of development in December of 2018.
High Hopes was originally created in 1984 out of necessity by five families in Middle Tennessee. These community members envisioned a place where children with special needs could receive a jump start in early education with therapeutic interventions on-site for those who needed it.
What they created has become so much more over the last 35 years since High Hopes opened its doors. What they managed to spearhead was an inclusive environment, where children with special needs play, learn, and grow alongside their friends that are typically-developing.
Now serving 22 counties in Tennessee, the school offers an inclusive preschool and Kindergarten and pediatric outpatient services including physical, occupational and speech therapy for children from birth to age 21. In 2018 alone, the center served 850 children, making up more than 25,000 therapy sessions and 132 hours of educational instruction.
Sweet Ellie G blossomed under the care and attention of her therapists at High Hopes and even started pre-school this past August 15 in those lively rooms, while continuing her therapy sessions on site. Unexpectedly, however, Ellie G contracted a fever virus in early September that her tiny body could not recover from and the absence of her daily presence is still very fresh in their lives but her spirit is engrained in everything that Brandy does at High Hopes.
“You know, when I started here, I felt it wasn’t appropriate to have magazine stuff all over the place because this was a different work environment” she recalls. “So, my office is all Ellie G. Photos, signs, everything in here so it’s now hard. Ellie G was so easy. So happy. She thrived here.”
Ellie G sitting alongside a typically developing child, in the classroom setting, was profound for her advancement as it is for other children of High Hopes.
“People might question the idea of a typically developing child and why would they want to go here? Why wouldn’t they want to go to the daycare down the road? But there are so many reasons for them to be here but you first have to know High Hopes exists,” Brandy says passionately.
“There was a day and time when special needs children were sent away and their families weren’t allowed the opportunity to bond with that child. We have an opportunity here for typically developing children to learn acceptance and compassion towards those different from them. If special needs children are only exposed to doctors and therapy appointments, they don’t understand what they want to aspire to be. When they are sitting at a table eye level with a peer, both children are learning from each other.”
High Hopes Family Support Director, Jessica Mizell, sees the incredible results at High Hopes on a daily basis. “I coordinate programs and resources for families here at High Hopes,” she says. “Everything from sensory friendly haircuts to summer camps, financial planning for families of those with special needs, dance and art camps and more,” she adds.
Children with sensory issues could have problems in regular environments with something as simple as the noise of a television or hair clippers. High Hopes provides a safe environment for them to experience these very normal activities in a way that works for them. The High Hopes staff believes that providing an inclusive environment is the best model through promoting diversity, compassion and friendship in the community.
High Hopes inclusive education experience is bolstered by an on-site outpatient clinic that provides four branches of pediatric therapy. To say their offerings are life changing for those families in need of what they offer, is an understatement.
As a non-profit, the only interest of High Hopes is to provide the best early education experience possible for all children. The High Hopes Pediatric Therapy Clinic in addition, welcomes children and youth, birth through age 21, into an inviting environment where outpatient therapy is fun and rewarding. All of these services take funding and Brandy is in the midst of their fundraising efforts.
For 35 years, High Hopes has been able to change lives and they hope to continue for many decades to come but it will take funds to get there. They recently expanded their campus from 14,000 to more than 30,000 square feet (some through the gifting of a generous philanthropist) but incurring pertinent costs in the process.
Events like the upcoming “Hats Off to High Hopes/Turning the Tables Edition” will provide a Chef Driven Celebrity Served experience on Sunday, November 10th at The Factory at Franklin. The evening is a unique and fun-filled experience which utilizes local celebrities as “waitstaff” to serve guests – whether bartending, stationed with a local chef, passing hors d’oeuvres or performing, it’s an entertaining evening for all and Brandy Blanton will be front and center.
“I started “Turning the Tables” back when I was with the magazine and after several years it took a rest. I wanted to dust it off to raise money for High Hopes. It’s been 11 years and we wanted it to be different,” she says. “So, I’ve reached out to my chef friends for help. Tyler Brown with Southall Farms, formerly with The Hermitage, is in and he and other chef friends will spearhead this evening of elevated cuisine, libations and more,” she adds.
“It wasn’t until I had a special needs granddaughter that High Hopes came on my radar. I had heard of it and knew enough to reach out to Gail Powell (Executive Director of High Hopes) when Elliott was born. I want people to know about High Hopes so that when there is a need, they will know where to go. You have no idea who needs what we offer. We need people to understand the value,” she says with passion in her voice.
“Miracles do happen here every day. It’s not a church building but it’s a place of love and support. The reality of witnessing the progress of children who have always been told ‘they can’t’ or ‘they won’t’ and to see ‘them do,’ is life changing. To see typically developing children be given the gift of acceptance at such an early age is something I’m extremely proud to be a part of.”
Sponsorships and tickets are still available for the event and can be purchased by visiting www.highhopesforkids.org or by contacting Brandy herself at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (615)550-1437 for more information.