Arkansas Democrat Gazette – By Cheree Franco
About half of the Access Schools campus is named for various members of the O’Connor family. There’s the Kelly O’Connor Therapy Gym and the Kelly O’Connor High School Classroom, the Lynn O’Connor Library and Mimi’s Nursery (Mimi was a pet name for Maconda O’Connor, Kelly’s grandmother).
Kelly O’Connor, 28, has been working with speech pathologist Tammy Simmons since 1991, three years before Simmons founded Access schools. At its inception, Access was a preschool serving seven special-needs children. Soon it developed the model Access Preschool uses today, mixing typical kids and disabled kids, while focusing on early intervention. Now Access is an academy(for students from 5 to 21), a therapy and evaluation program (serving the community beyond Access) and a lifeskills and internship program (for ages 18-35).
Kelly, who has Down’s syndrome, was 6 when she moved to Little Rock with her parents, George and Lynn O’Connor. For several years, they searched for a school that would be patient and encouraging with their daughter.
“We tried public and private schools,” says Lynn, but other schools had placed her in typical classrooms.
The O’Connors watched their cheerful daughter become anxious and withdrawn. Then, in 1998, Simmons debuted Access Academy, a nonprofit, full-time educational program for students with learning disabilities. Kelly enrolled immediately.
The O’Connors have been Access’ biggest fans ever since. Lynn has sat on the board for nearly 17 years. George, head of a Miller and Coors distributing company, supplies beer to every fundraising event. In 2003, the family hosted Starry, Starry Night, the school’s signature fundraiser, in their backyard. Eleven years later, they’re co-chairing the event, which has grown from about 50 people to 400 and graduated from backyards – “Because one night, it wasn’t so starry,” George recalls dryly – to the Statehouse Convention Center.
At Access, Kelly made friends and was a cheerleader. She competed on the swim team and acted in school plays. In 2006, she was among the school’s first graduating class. Now she has embarked upon another Access inroad, Project Search: a nine-month internship that places young adults in different departments at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center with the goal of helping them acquire permanent employment.
Kelly lives in her own apartment, takes a bus to and from work, cooks dinner for herself, lunches with co-workers and has a boyfriend of three years, a man who also has Down’s syndrome. Her parents credit Access with her success.
“For Kelly, learning to read and write and handle herself in an independent way and have the tools and the confidence to live on her own is just incredible,” Lynn says.
The O’Connors’ son, Ryan, 32, has two daughters – Georgia, 11 months, and Louisa, 3 years old. They aren’t developmentally impaired but attend Access preschool.
“We simply think this is the best preschool,” Lynn says.
And because therapists are frequently present in preschool classrooms, sometimes learning disabilities in Access’ “typical” students are uncovered, and they receive crucial early intervention.
Now Access serves 168 full-time students on a campus that includes three playgrounds (for different age levels), a greenhouse full of vegetables the students grow and sell, an art studio with pottery kilns, a teen room with a foosball table, a kitchen run by Paul Novicky, former chef of Nu restaurant, and a two-room “apartment” with working appliances.
The Access Life students, ages 18-35, use the apartment to learn independent living skills. They grocery shop and cook meals, wash clothes and fold laundry. They go out in the community to exercise, volunteer at food banks, and work in local businesses. They create their own websites and resumes and stage mock job interviews.
“They really train them for being out on their own,” Lynn says.
George, a businessman, sees another benefit to having Access. “I don’t care if you’re Dillards or Stephens … or anybody trying to recruit somebody. If you’ve got a special needs kid, and you’re trying to recruit that person into this community, and you don’t have a special needs facility … you’re not gonna get that person.”
Beyond all of that, Access is simply a magical place.
“A lot of people have the idea that it’s going to be depressing or sad,” Lynn says, but there are bright colors everywhere – teal, purple and orange walls, murals and student artwork.
The classrooms have nooks and crannies, raised forts, piled pillows and fuzzy rugs. Papier-mache owls dance from the ceilings, art projects are strung catty-cornered. Kids study math sitting cross-legged on the floor, sometimes using lap-desks and blocks. The babies roll about campus in a peppermint-striped buggy, and the therapy gym boasts ball pits, foam blocks, hammocks and swings, scooters, a climbing wall and an in-ground trampoline.
According to the O’Connors, Starry Starry Night promises to be just as magical. There will be cocktails, dinner and trips up for bid – a duck hunt in Lee County, a week’s vacation in Crested Butte, Colo., a tropical escape to Turks and Caicos and a hunting adventure in Mexico, among them. Access students are preparing decorations and silent auction “story people.” (Story people are about 2 feet tall, made from painted scrap wood. They each have a story. One blue and orange story-man with green spikes on his head says, “I’m fashionably late, which I think is great. I need to prepare my hair.”)
Access hopes to raise about $175,000 from its 16th Starry Starry Night event, in the school’s 20th anniversary year.
Tuition is just over $8,000 a year per student, but it costs about twice that to provide the roughly one-to-two teacher-to-student ratio and additional services required.
“There’s not a lot of schools like Access, because there’s not a lot of funding available,” George says.
“But we plan to be cheerleaders and a support system for Access as long as we’re around,” Lynn says.
Starry Starry Night is 6:30-9:30 p.m. Thursday at the Statehouse Convention Center. Tickets are $150 each. For more information or to buy tickets, call (501) 217-8600 or email email@example.com.