By Sam Jack
Spring 2018 was a difficult season for the Life Skills program at Garden Plain Elementary.
The program, which serves children with disabilities, lost two students in less than a week. First-grader Leah Overlees died Friday, March 30, and third-grader Cale Twietmeyer died less than a week later, on April 4.
To remember Leah and Cale, classmates and staff held a balloon launch a few days later, with pink balloons for Leah and blue ones for Cale.
“Because our kids were part of the regular classes, too, they had made friends with all the students at Garden Plain,” said Jenny Twietmeyer, Cale’s mother. “It was nice to be able to give the kids an outlet for grieving.”
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Many teachers and students bought T-shirts and wore them to school, signaling their support for the Overlees and Twietmeyer families as well as the Life Skills community. Leah’s mother, Angie, said she still sees the T-shirts often, both in Garden Plain and in Cheney, where Leah’s and Cale’s families reside. Seeing the shirts always leaves her with a warm feeling.
“It was a very sad time for two communities who are close together and have lots of ties,” Angie said. “But it was also bittersweet, I guess, in that it tied both communities closer together.”
Members of the Twietmeyer and Overlees families went to school together in Cheney and have been close for years. They didn’t ask to be bound even closer by their shared experience of loving and losing disabled children. They have leaned on each other for support, nevertheless, according to Jenny.
“I always felt comfort in knowing that I wasn’t alone,” she said. “When there were issues with bussing, or where the kids were going to go, we were able to band together, instead of just being that one, loud family.”
Parents, students and siblings spent a lot of time last year “just loving” one another, according to Jennifer McFadden, Cale and Leah’s Life Skills teacher last year.
“It maybe consoled the adult staff in the classroom more than it helped (the students) – just having them still be around to love on was really healing,” McFadden said.
This year, thanks to sales of the T-shirts, plus a donation from the Garden Plain Elementary HSO, Leah and Cale’s time at Garden Plain will soon be remembered with a special, accessible swing set.
Kids will be able to roll onto a platform, have their wheelchairs latched in place, and just swing.
“To move that smoothly, it’s different than usual in a wheelchair, because there’s no bumps,” McFadden said. “It’s gives them some different vestibular input, which is good for them.”
Angie said that Leah loved to be outside, and loved to swing, too.
“I think it’s a very, very sweet tribute for them, because they both would have really enjoyed that swing. It’s awesome for them to leave their mark in Garden Plain,” she said.
Cale’s younger brother Jayden, who is also part of the Life Skills class, will get the chance to use the new swing. The new equipment has been ordered, but a date to unveil it has not yet been set.