Thirty-three years ago, Khia Lopez was expected to be born with special needs. She came out perfectly healthy.
Now, she owns Great Heights Academy (GHA) — a school that provides supportive care for special-needs kids from kindergarten to 12th grade, with an intent on expanding into adult care.
“My mom says from Day One, ‘The reason why you didn’t come out special needs is because God has a bigger plan for you, and it was for you to start something big,’” Lopez said. “So when she sees [GHA], she’s so proud. She tells everybody. She’s like, ‘I knew, I knew you’d be special.’”
Lopez started GHA four years ago in a rented daycare with eight students and two teachers, including herself. For the first two years, she wasn’t paid.
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It was an uphill battle, but one that gradually got better.
By the end of its second year, GHA’s students grew from eight to over 30. Last year, the student count climbed over 50.
For this upcoming semester, GHA will be able to house more than 100 students — due to last week’s extensive makeover.
The company Interval International partnered with GHA to paint, construct, and furnish 16 new schoolrooms.
In total, eight classrooms, three bathrooms, a receptionist desk, personal office, therapy room, sensory room, and activities area were constructed over three days by Interval volunteers.
Guided in by teachers and staff, the kids were elated to see the new classrooms. Their initial screams of excitement died down as they took in the views — only to pick up again once they began exploring.
Sprawled along colorful mats, the kids first gravitated toward their new activities area before spilling into the hallways, which maintained an energetic color scheme throughout the school.
One group of kids found themselves mesmerized in the sensory room — a space awash with pillows and mood lighting, meant to be reclusive when necessary.
This isn’t the first time Interval has worked with the academy. “Honestly, they’re the biggest contributor to GHA,” Lopez said. “I am forever indebted to them because ... they never stop thinking about our kids.”
For Interval’s 40th anniversary, GHA kids were invited to perform a music show. Last Christmas, the kids were given new athletic equipment.
Even academically, Interval workers help when they can. This past year, Lopez held a winter and Valentine’s bake sale for the kids to help them gain negotiation and baking skills. She intended for the goods to be free, but Interval insisted on paying a dollar per sale.
Interval’s commitment to GHA’s students has proven to be long term and genuine.
“We hope that we can help enrich their lives, make an environment where they can learn and feel secure,” said Jeanette Marbert, the chief operating officer of ILG, Interval’s parent company. “I think anybody who participates in helping here is enriched ... and I believe everybody that participates gets something out of it,” she said.
Last week’s renovations will propel GHA’s ability to serve its kids, according to Lopez. With a compassionate staff and disciplined curriculum, she is determined to prepare her students to transition into the wider world.
“That’s my goal. To make a good program that gets many kids out in the community, and gets them working, even if it’s things like farming or selling at a fresh market,” she said. “They can water plants, they can plant seeds. There’s so many little things that they can do that add up to bigger things, if given the chance.”
Adrianna Correa-Zapata, the mother of Julian, a 10-year-old with Down syndrome, said she found “everything [she] was looking for” at GHA.
Correa-Zapata transferred Julian after a recommendation by his speech therapist, who also works at the school. She has no intention on moving him.
“My child, the minute he sees that we’re getting here, he gets all excited,” Correa-Zapata said. “I haven’t even put the car in park and he’s already opening the door to get out. That tells me that my son is absolutely happy here.”
Julian’s excitement is in part due to GHA’s familial atmosphere. Correa-Zapata said she felt it the minute she walked in, and finds it reassuring.
In providing her son a second family, one that effectively teaches Julian, she feels “absolutely ecstatic” about the school, and highly recommends it.