Eastside Elementary School awarded $20,000 grant for upgrades to sensory room, media center

Mar. 25—In many schools, sensory rooms are a necessity for students who need a "calming, decompressing environment" to relax and feel comfortable, said Tollis Bond, a part-time special education teacher at Eastside Elementary School.

Eastside Elementary's sensory room "has a lot of materials and equipment that are older," she said. "It just needs a big updating."

Thanks to a $20,000 School Crashers grant awarded to the school by the Georgia United Foundation, Eastside Elementary's sensory room will receive that much-needed makeover this year.

In partnership with the Georgia United Credit Union, the Georgia United Foundation recently announced Eastside Elementary as one of only six schools in Georgia to receive the annual grant through its School Crashers program, which offers schools across the state the opportunity for renovations to their facilities.

"Like many of you have seen on (television channel) HGTV, crashing means making something better," said Kim Wall, the director of business and community development for the Georgia United Credit Union.

Wall said Bond applied for the School Crashers grant in January and the school was selected from 224 entries from schools from across the state.

"She asked for multiple areas that we've kind of zoned in on," Wall said.

That includes the sensory room as well as a flooring replacement to Eastside's media center.

The media center has carpeted flooring, which Eastside Elementary's media specialist Holly Jones said has built up years and years of Christmastime hot chocolate stains.

"So, over the summer when students are out, Georgia United Credit Union and our foundation volunteers will come and pick up paintbrushes," Wall said. "We'll work with our local wonderful donors like Mohawk Carpet and we will 'crash' the school to improve the learning environment for all the children at Eastside Elementary."

Eastside Elementary Principal Ben Hunt said the grant will "make a great difference" within the school.

"We are always needing support from the community and not only are we going to have a good amount of money, but we're also going to have some volunteers come and help out this school," Hunt said. "And we have some huge needs. Our building needs some repair and our students have some huge needs, too, like the sensory room. So, this $20,000 is a huge gift to us."

Wall said the updated sensory room will be most likely split into two sides serving different functions.

"Half will be calming and self-regulating for students, and the other half will be an active side where children who might have autism and need that stimulation can have equipment to fidget and play with," Wall said. "We're also thinking about a calming corner and some tactile panels on the wall that children can touch."

For the media center, Wall said the carpet will most likely be removed and replaced with a better and more easier to clean material, such as luxury vinyl tile flooring.

"And if there's funding left," Bond said, "we're going to do some murals in the cafeteria, because right now the cafeteria walls are just a solid color."

Bond said murals of the school's seven "houses" — students and faculty are divided into the houses, with each representing a character trait — would help make the cafeteria more "livelier and happy."

Wall said the Georgia United Foundation will order materials for the projects in May before scheduling work days in June.

"The entire project will be complete before school gets back this fall," Wall said.

The Georgia United Foundation has been "crashing" schools for more than a decade.

"This is our 11th year," Wall said. "So far, we have improved 70 schools across the state with a total of $2.1 million in improvements."

Wall said Bond's application was approved because of the school's compelling needs.

"This year we looked at 224 stories from schools across Georgia, and (Bond) told a story of need, a story of how we can make a change and improve the environment for the students here," Wall said.

Wall noted that Eastside Elementary serves more than 650 students in an "underserved area of Dalton."

"This school receives public assistance, but you'd never know it if you walked in here," she said. "There's so much love. We're looking forward to working with you."

Hunt said Bond's eagerness to help the school continue to grow has been magnificent.

"They had over 220 different schools apply, but none of them have Tollis," Hunt said. "Someone once called her a 'force of nature,' and she really is. She's a retired teacher and she only works part time here, but she really works about three times what a lot of people do. She's passionate about her job and passionate about her school, and when she sees a need, she works on it until it's met. We're just grateful to have her here."

Bond said she prayed about the application.

"Because there might be other schools in our state that might need the grant, too," she said. "But I said, 'If it would be God's will, we would love to get it.' And when (Wall) called me and said we're one of the top schools, I was like 'Praise God.' I want to make sure I always give Him the glory for that."

Funding for the School Crashers program is provided by the Georgia United Foundation and through donations made by community partners and individuals. Wall said contributions to the program can be made by visiting www.gucufoundation.org/donate. For more information on the program, visit gucufoundation.org/schoolcrashers.