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Opinion

Bill Kirby Jr.: The School of Hope looks to serve 160 more autistic students

The school is kicking off a $500,000 fundraising campaign this week to purchase a modular classroom unit. It is looking to accommodate 160 additional autistic students.

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Some people you never forget.

Some moments, too.

“I will never forget you, Jarred,” Amy Sparks said that sunny April 24, 2012, afternoon as her VanStory Hills Elementary third-grade students released blue helium balloons into the sky. Sparks smiled for her students.

Inside, a mother’s heart was breaking.

And something else you should know about Amy Sparks on that day.

She was dreaming of better tomorrows for autistic children, just as she and her husband once dreamed for Jarred Sparks, the autistic son they loved and who died at age 19 on June 10, 2011. Amy and Rob Sparks dreamed of one day opening a school of learning for the autistic.

The School of Hope opened on Aug. 29, 2017, in vacant rooms of Second Baptist Church just off Person Street.

“We had five students,” Amy Sparks says.

Today, she says, the school has 45 students from kindergarten through post-high school. There are seven classrooms, where students learn art, music and other academic skills.

The school may be nestled within the church proper, but for parents seeking a place for their autistic children to learn, The School of Hope is a place they have come to know.

Sparks says she receives a minimum of four calls a day in hopes The School of Hope has a place for an autistic child.

“The hardest thing is not having room and having to turn a parent and a child away,” Sparks says. “That’s the hardest part about it, and feeling I’ve let them down.”

And it is why you will find those nine modular units just outside the school playground, Sparks says, and where once the units are assembled into one unit it will house eight classrooms with 20 students in each classroom.

Hope for other autistic students

“It’s 120 feet and 60 feet wide,” Sparks says. “It’s a place for classrooms, bathrooms and an office. They had it in Wake County, and we found out about it. We paid $13,000 in good faith. It’s a very nice unit.”

All total, with a full setup, the unit will cost The School of Hope $350,000.

And it is why the Hope 200 $500,000 capital fundraising campaign kicks off with an open house beginning at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

“We have the potential for having 160 more students,” Sparks says, and with the current student roster of 45 that could mean 200-plus students, hence Hope 200.

For a gift of $100,000, the modular unit will bear your name. For a gift of $40,000, a classroom will be named in your honor, and remember there are eight classrooms. For a gift of $20,000, a hallway will be named in your honor. For a gift of $10,000, your name will be placed on the Wall of Hope in the modular unit.

“It’s ready to go,” Sparks says, “and we’re ready to get started.”

Ron Liggins is the school’s board president.

“Changing lives, that is what we are doing at The School of Hope,” he says. “The capital campaign, Hope 200, would do just that. Change lives. For us to do this is of paramount importance. We need the space and availability to serve other students. Not only does this promote an awareness in this community about autism, it also creates a safe haven for people to know that their children are receiving the very best education and that people understand children who have autism. This building would open those opportunities for people that we have not even met yet. It also allows this city to take a personal ownership in this unique opportunity of helping others, especially disabled students.”

Beyond today

The ability to serve a greater number of autistic students, Liggins says, is as much about their todays as well as their tomorrows.

“With the opportunity to expand, we have dreams and aspirations for our students and their future,” Liggins says. “Some of our students may not be able to further their education after The School of Hope but can be taught life skills and have a job and be successful and productive citizens in this community. Other students may have the opportunity to attend college and be afforded this opportunity because they had a strong foundation given to them at The School of Hope.

“The unique individualized attention that is given at this school to each student is what brings hope to many people. What we do today affects the future for our kids tomorrow.

“Capital 200 allows an additional 160 students that opportunity to grow, to be loved, to be taught and to be successful,” Liggins says. “Isn’t that what any parent would want for their child? This city has an opportunity to make this happen if we come together and raise the funds that are needed to do this.”

Epilogue

Raising $500,000 is a tall order.

But then again, there were those who said Rob and Amy Sparks never would get The School of Hope opened, too.

Amy Sparks would not be deterred from opening this school for the autistic.

“We are a nonprofit school,” she says about the 501- c(3). “We are certified through the state of North Carolina as a private school for children with autism. That was required from the state for us to complete requirements before we could open our school.”

She’s the school administrator, principal, a teacher when needed in the classroom, and a tireless advocate for the autistic.

And Amy Sparks will not be deterred now in this ambitious undertaking.

“I know this can be done,” she says. “I’m not giving up. I can tell you that for sure. I’m putting this in God’s hands. God does great things, but you have to do your part, too.”

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.

Column, Bill Kirby Jr., The School of Hope, Amy Sparks, fundraiser