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A space that's out of this world

by DEVIN WEEKS
Staff Writer | December 12, 2020 1:00 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — “Give me 10 jumps,” school counselor Rebecca VanderLouw said to River Woodworth on Thursday morning.

River was off and jumping. And punching. And battle-roping. And crash-landing.

The Fernan STEM Academy fifth-grader knew just what to do as she made her way around the Falcon Flyers Room, a sensory space where students can exert energy and regulate their emotions through burst sessions of physical activity.

A “calm down” follows the exercise, when students focus their minds and re-regulate before returning to class.

“It makes me lose track of all the negative things,” River said. “It makes me get into work way easier than I would without it.”

The walls are dark, the lights are soft and the outer space theme gives the sensation that the room is somewhere in a galaxy far, far away.

Bre Gotham, Post Falls digital artist, contributed her time and talent to the project by painting a mural that sends a message of acceptance and inclusion as all the characters are unique.

Gotham's son, now 8, went to Fernan from kindergarten through third grade.

“He used the sensory room. He’s on the autistic spectrum and ADHD, so this stuff is really helpful for him,” she said. “He learned so much just from the services here. He is able to, now, regulate a lot easier and focus a little bit better.”

She said she loves knowing that her artwork will contribute to the benefit of current and future students.

“It makes me want to cry,” Gotham said. “I love this school. This is something that I honestly wanted to do so badly. I love this sensory room so much.

“This is giving kids coping mechanisms they’re going to be able to use their entire life,” she continued. “That’s really, really important for the future."

A sensory room was added to Fernan a few years ago with the help of a grant from the Excel Foundation.

“We didn’t have all this cool stuff," VanderLouw said. "We just had a few items.”

The room upgrade was completed in October thanks to Mountain West Bank, Sherwin Williams and the Coeur d'Alene School District maintenance team. The upgrade, plus a sensory pathway in the hall leading to the room, cost about $5,000.

“It’s just a really cool, whimsical place for the kids to come,” VanderLouw said. “I love it because I feel like they’re coming into another world when they come into this room.”

Bekah Johnson, director of community relations for Mountain West Bank, said teachers are so busy already, they don’t have the time to work on projects like this. Mountain West wants to do more than “just write a check and walk away,” she said.

“We come in with our volunteers and make the magic” for the teachers, she said. “It’s precious.”

Mountain West Bank CEO Scott Anderson said this type of project normally isn’t in a school’s budget or placed high on the priority list.

“It’s a need that probably doesn’t jump out as mainstream,” he said. “It’s a need that’s there but you got to know the right folks and have the right connections and the right energy.

“We’re able to help move these things along.”

Fernan Assistant Principal Jen Reyes said to have this resource for students who need it “keeps them in the game.” It reinforces that people beyond family members care about them, and could potentially reduce dropout rates later, she said.

"This definitely has touched every single kid here at Fernan," Reyes said. "Every single kid has access, and it makes a huge difference for every single one of those kids."

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DEVIN WEEKS/Press

Digital artist Bre Gotham on Thursday stands next to a mural she painted in the Falcon Flyers Room in Fernan STEM Academy. Gotham, Mountain West Bank, Sherwin Williams and the Coeur d'Alene School District collaborated to upgrade the space-themed sensory room, which was completed in October.

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DEVIN WEEKS/Press

Fifth-grader River Woodworth bounces on a small trampoline Thursday morning as she shows how students use the newly upgraded sensory room in Fernan STEM Academy. Sensory rooms help individuals with sensory issues learn to regulate their brain's negative reactions to external stimuli by developing coping skills for these experiences. These safe spaces have been in use since the 1970s.

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DEVIN WEEKS/Press

Second-grader Ezekiel Hopkins follows the sensory path leading to the Falcon Flyers Room in Fernan STEM Academy on Thursday morning.