GreenRiver Academy to provide holistic schooling and therapy for neurologically impaired children

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By Bobby Bordelon

A new academy in White Sulphur Springs will soon provide some relief to the local school system in caring for neurologically impaired students. The GreenRiver Academy, founded by speech therapist Rebekah Lilly and special education teacher Savanna Keesee, is looking to provide a pre-Kindergarden day program to help the kids that need just a little more help.

The collaboration began as a seed of an idea over five years ago, as both Lilly and Keesee noticed a rise in children with behavioral problems.

special education teacher Savanna Keesee (left) and speech therapist Rebekah Lilly (right) are the founders of GreenRiver Academy.

“We both worked in the county for many years and we noticed there was an influx of kids with these behaviors,” explained Lilly. “[Keesee], as a teacher in the education world, was dealing with it one way, and then me, in the therapy world as a speech pathologist, was working at it in a different way. … We collaborated and realized if we marry the education world with the therapy world, together, and looked at the child holistically [instead of] just trying to fix the obvious behaviors, that the child was making progress and being functional in the environment versus constantly having to be taken out or written up for the bad behavior when it could have been worked through.”

The duo plans to provide services for children on the autism spectrum, those with developmental disorders, behavioral disorders, those affected by drugs, and more.

“I’m going back to grad school to get the applied behavioral analysis aspect of things,” Keesee said. “It really didn’t start to become well known and implemented until the 80s [in caring for] autism, and now they’re branching into developmental disorders, ADHD, and behavioral type things.”

“And Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, but I prefer the term neurologically impaired,” Lilly expanded. “If you think about doing drugs, your brain is altered during that time. Think about in utero, you are growing, your brain starts growing and your cells start splitting the moment you’re conceived – so if the mother is doing drugs the moment the baby is conceived, all those cells are going to be affected. That baby’s homeostasis [the body’s nature resting state] whenever it is born, is high. So how you would feel high is how that baby feels normally. So then that child is always seeking that high, which is why you have those extreme behaviors, because the child is seeking the high. So you’ve got to teach the child to decrease the [high-seeking] through various things, depending on the child.”

Between the rising number of kids with these issues and the level of work for each teacher, counselor, and therapist in the school system, Keesee and Lilly set out to create a school to compliment the local school system and provide another place for these children.

“The county, the system itself, is geared toward neurotypical kids, not neuroimpaired kids,” Lilly said. “Teachers, a lot of times, feel like they’re by themselves. Therapists feel like they’re by themselves. But if we all work together to support each other to support these children, then none of us are going to feel overwhelmed or overworked or exhausted. Sometimes these kids can be very challenging and it’s not the child’s fault, but when you have a 20-plus class size, you’ve got seven or eight of these kids with executive function issues, you’re doing well enough just to keep the kids together in the classroom and shoot for your basic functions. It’s truly a struggle, not just with early children through preschool but up all the way through. We’re looking to help that struggle, not to take away from anything.”

This type of program is not new – they exist in various forms in the rest of the country Lilly and Keesee explained. The day program would be new to West Virginia, however, contrasting with the residential services offered by many facilities that attempt to help neurologically impaired children.

“It’s new, everyone is afraid of change, but what we’re creating is not anything new and it’s not groundbreaking and changing, it’s just not in our state yet and that’s the problem,” Lilly explained. “All these other states have these programs developed. … When our kids come in, we’re going to look at their learning styles, we’re going to look at what behaviors they’re having, we’re going to assess their expressive and receptive language skills, their executive function skills, and create a plan that’s truly individualized for that student so they can be successful.”

This individualized experience is a top priority for treatment and behavioral change. Differences in learning are a key reason for this.

“For a child that’s neurotypical, they can hear something five, maybe 20, times and they start getting it,” Lilly said. “For a neuroimpaired child, they have to hear it 100 to 500 times before it connects. You have to be consistent. … You have to find what works for the student but you have to take the time to do it. In the county, I had 65-plus kids that I was seeing and I was struggling to get that done. … That’s why I’m really excited about us making this system – we’re creating time.”

Although the pair plans to begin with pre-K aged students alone, there are potential plans for more services for older students. A key part of the Academy is to treat and help these children early, allowing them to be better prepared to enter the school system and ease the burden on teachers in the classroom.

“[One example is] ADHD kid that can’t sit still while you’re having carpet time,” Keesee said. “You’re constantly writing them up because you don’t have a strategy to help them or you may need to get the parents more involved with that. So what we’ll do is we’ll teach those kids per their behavior the skills that they need to be able to be successful. … We’re going to follow all of the same [curriculum as the school system] so that when, or if, they can flow into the school system, they’re prepared.”

One surprise this year in particular had for the Academy was the emergence of COVID-19. Working with several organizations and their respective guidelines, Keesee and Lilly formed a plan on how to keep the children safe.

“We’re going to have groups of five, with two hour time slots,” Keesee explained. “If we get enough then I’ll be able to hire another teacher, and [Lilly] will be able to bounce back and forth between [us]. That’s an hour and fifteen minutes of direct pre-K instruction and 45 minutes of speech therapy. … [We’re going to] try to compact what we can into a couple of hours, but keep everybody COVID safe. I’m not gonna have that same group of five kids sit at a table five other kids sitting at. They’re gonna have their own seats.”

Children are expected to come to the school through a referrals and parents or guardians approaching the Academy.

“The county board can say they have a child with these issues, they’re struggling with the environment, they need a less restrictive environment. Otherwise, the parents can say ‘I don’t feel like my child is getting what they need in public school or the private school they’re in’ and they can refer themselves,” Reesee explained.

Although the school is a new endeavor, the pair are already very familiar, having worked together previously to treat students, manage a Girl Scout troop, and be neighborhood mothers to their children.

“Our two oldest are the same age, we live in Alderson, so we’re constantly together,” Keesee said. “I’m second mom, she’s second mom, depending on which perspective of the child you’re looking at.”

“Sometimes I’m bad guy, she’s bad guy, depending what’s up or who has the knowledge of the day,” Lilly continued. “… We pick up the slack for each other.”

Welcoming potential students, Keesee and Lilly are still preparing the school for their future students, expecting to open soon.

“What we’re creating is a truly least restrictive environment with a smaller class size that is truly looking at the child’s needs and developmentally, physically, emotionally, all of those aspects, and giving them the tools that they need to be successful,” Lilly said. “… Our main focus is to give these kids a chance because they deserve it. They can’t help themselves, but we can help them.”