Boomer Volunteers Take on Passion Projects.
JEFF AND SANDY ADAMS: A special purpose that began as a career blossoms into retirement
By Tracy N. Coley
Sandy Adams has long believed that her work should have purpose, that she should do good in the world and always leave things better than she found them. When she retired in 2013 as the physical education department chair and adaptive PE teacher in the Elbert County School System, she turned her full-time focus to something not just good, but really special. She has created an innovative program for special needs students that has become a model for other school systems in Georgia.
Up until 1994,10 years into her PE teaching at a local elementary school, Sandy only had one wheelchair-bound student who required special services. She did everything possible to help the student, reaching out to the Regional Education Service Agency, which provides physical and occupational therapists, adaptive technology and equipment, and educational resources for students and families.
Her passion for helping this one student, coupled with her and her husband Jeff’s involvement with special needs children at her church, opened the door to her position as adaptive PE teacher for the county.
Over the next few years, her caseload began to grow as more students with special needs attended her adaptive PE program. She made her daily rounds to each of the county’s four elementary schools, and the middle and high schools. One of her first adaptive PE students at Blackwell Elementary was the irresistibly charming Bud McCall.
Bud, dressed in his Scooby Doo tie, would greet her every day from his wheelchair pumping his hands in the air, “Ready to raise the roof, Mrs. Sandy!”
Sadly, Bud passed away unexpectedly in 2000, leaving Sandy and the other teachers and students heartbroken, including Bud’s younger sister Katie who was only six.
Fast forward to Fall 2009, after Sandy was promoted to PE department chair and oversaw the PE programs for all Elbert County schools. By then, Katie McCall was a freshman in high school, and the memory of her brother remained ever present. One morning she came to Sandy with a plea: “Oh, Mrs. Sandy, I want to go with you to Blackwell.”
Thanking Katie but then not thinking any more about it, Sandy left on her rounds to the other schools. The next day, Katie approached her again. “This time, she put her hands on my arms and said, ‘Mrs. Sandy, you don’t understand. That’s what I want to be involved in, because of Bud,’” she recalls.
Friends Helping Friends
Realizing the earnestness of her request, Sandy approached the high school principal with the idea for Katie to help with her class while also getting her PE course credit. The principal happily agreed to the arrangement.
Katie was thrilled, and the very next day presented Sandy with a list of six other girls who wanted to go with them. Sandy considered how seven willing assistants might make a difference in her caseload of 30 students. Luckily, the principal was willing to try the concept on a trial basis.
“The bond that they formed with the kids and the one-on-one interaction made a tremendous difference. The kids were doing things that they had never done,” says Sandy.
She had always charted her students’ progress, and now with the extra help, could see significant improvements for each. By Spring 2010, just six months after they began their classroom visits, Sandy recognized the potential for this group the girls had formed, and the Friends Helping Friends Club was born.
By this time, other students had gotten wind of this special group and were clamoring to help as well. Sandy invited interested high schoolers with good grades and behavior to participate in PE activities, field days, festivals, parade floats, field trips and engaging activities with the students with special needs from pre-k to high school.
Around 60 students signed up for the club, and some registered for work-based learning and education classes to help in the special education classrooms while getting hands-on learning. Some of them shadowed the occupational and physical therapists who worked with the students. By Fall 2011, membership grew to 120, and by the third year to 300 club members, including a new middle school club.
Club members chomp at the bit for highly coveted spots, where they serve as personal buddies on trips that include bowling, movies, Gwinnett and Atlanta Braves games, and the Greenville Zoo. And by invitation of Katie’s father, former State Representative Tom McCall, the group has taken annual trips to the state capitol.
To afford all these activities, Sandy empowered the students to raise money. Modeling after the successful Extra Special People, Inc. program in Watkinsville and their fundraising events, the students set out to make something special in their own community. An annual pageant, a sponsor drive, and JamFest that includes a silent auction and Taste of Elberton food fair, along with a lot of grunt work for donations, yield around $70,000 a year to support programs that benefit students with special needs in Elbert County and the surrounding area.
In addition to field trips, festivals and sometimes less fun things like storage units and refrigerators, the funds fully support an annual full-week summer day camp that combines sports, arts and crafts, singing and games to engage students with FHF Club members and community volunteers.
Sandy’s connection with community has profited the group beyond financial gains. With Rep. McCall’s nomination, Sandy has served as the governor-appointed member of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency since 2012. She learned through her GVRA service about the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta, which provides free legal services to nonprofits. With their help, Sandy was able to incorporate FHF in 2014 and formally organize with a 50-member advisory board and board of directors, including retired teachers, school administrators and other volunteers, to help plan and organize events and manage the organization’s business. And Sandy’s involvement with the GVRA board has made other school districts take notice. They are modeling their programs after the successful FHF, in which Sandy serves in an advisory capacity to help them take flight.
Since retiring from the Elbert County School System in 2013, Sandy and husband Jeff, also a retired teacher, have made Friends Helping Friends their full-time jobs. Jeff is a consummate supporter, serving as emcee, camp soccer coach and overall heavy lifter of anything that needs moving or doing. The two work non-stop for FHF and have not had a vacation in 9 years. But they’re not complaining.
“I love it, and I feel free. I feel like I’m the most blessed person on the planet to have had an occupation that I loved so much. And now I get to do the fun part,” Sandy says.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of Sandy’s commitment to the FHF Club and organization are the students who benefitted as buddies. Many of the FHF club members amassed years of experience, preparing them for general and special education teaching professions, as well as physical, occupational and speech therapy careers. Some of these FHF alums are trying to start their own Friends Helping Friends clubs in their school systems.
And it all started with one teacher wanting to try something new, who took a job that she loved and made her passion fully blossom in retirement.
(Photos courtesy Sandy Adams and Friends Helping Friends)
READ ABOUT JOHN COLE VODICKA ON PAGE 2