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Leveling the Playing Field

An aspiring teacher sees a familiar playground through new eyes.

by Kelly Finan, Class of 2009

SPOVSpring 2008  |  Share This  |  E-mail  |  Print  | 
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Photo by Steve Green

For children ages 1 to 4, the Susan Gray School provides intimate classes where typically developing children learn, play and grow alongside children with special needs. The education and environment at SGS are acceptance-based and allow children at all levels of physical and social development to thrive in a common setting.

For elementary education majors like me, the Susan Gray School (SGS) provides invaluable training. Originally named the Peabody Experimental School when it opened on the campus of Peabody College in 1968, SGS is devoted to educational research involving young children with developmental disabilities.

I did my first special education practicum at the Susan Gray School in the spring of 2003. Two years later, as part of the Peabody Academic Leaders (PALs) program, I had the opportunity to work and play with SGS kids for a second time.

My third experience at Susan Gray, however, in the summer of 2007, proved to be much different than the previous two. It began a new phase of my life in which the Susan Gray School family would play an important role.

It was last July, and I was glad to be back on the Peabody campus working with the children. We had been doing crafts inside, and after we finished painting, we headed outside for playtime. Play is an important part of the education at SGS, as it should be at any preschool. There is much research showing enormous positive benefits of play at an early age. That is why I was astonished when I went out onto the playground with the children that summer day.

As a college student walking across the 21st Avenue bridge, I had seen Susan Gray children playing outside many times before, but now I was viewing the playground through different eyes. While some children ran around freely, enjoying the playground equipment, the children with special needs and I sat at the top of a dirt-covered hill watching the others. These children were not able to experience the same quality of playtime as their peers. I knew right then that something had to be done.

What had happened to allow me such a moment of clarity? Two years prior to that July morning in 2007, I had found myself unable to function normally. I couldn’t stand without getting dizzy, couldn’t walk without pain. The lower half of my body swelled constantly. It was especially frustrating because this was the summer I had planned to get a kidney transplant in Maryland, where I reside when I’m not in Nashville. I had been diagnosed with kidney disease in high school, but had always managed to bounce back from any illnesses I’d faced. When my kidneys shut down following brain surgery I underwent in 2003, I went on dialysis. I had been on dialysis for a year and a half and had just gotten an MRI to clear me for transplant surgery.

The summer of 2005 was spent in confusion. No one could figure out just why my body was suddenly ailing. After a summer of dead-end doctor’s appointments and tests, I decided to return to Vanderbilt to begin my junior year. Vanderbilt doctors were able to diagnose my disease, but at that time there was no known cause and no cure.


Kelly Finan wouldn’t take no for an answer, and as a result all Susan Gray School students will have a playground they can enjoy. Photo by John Russell

It wasn’t until many months of subsequent hospitalization and a LifeFlight trip back to Maryland to receive a kidney transplant that researchers figured out what was causing my illness. Numerous studies at Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins concluded that the initial MRI I had in early summer 2005, compounded with the many MRIs I had during my year-long hospital stay, had left me debilitated. The contrast dye Gadolinium, given to make the imaging clearer, had wreaked havoc on my system. Finally, I was allowed to return to my home to recuperate in August 2006.

At home I began to realize that I faced a major adjustment in living as a handicapped individual. Although I was getting healthier each day, it was becoming apparent that I would never get my old life back.

My family was a constant reminder of how lucky I was to be alive and how much I had to be thankful for. Slowly I faced the harsh reality that my life was forever changed. We decided that, despite the obstacles that surely lay ahead, I needed to return to Vanderbilt and finish what I had started.

Along with thoughts of Vanderbilt came a strong desire to go back to volunteering at Susan Gray. It was an ideal opportunity, not only because I had been there before and it was located right on Peabody’s campus, but also because I thought it might be the perfect spot for me to start my transition back to college life as a handicapped individual.

Before long, I was taking summer-session classes and was assigned to volunteer in a community organization for a social justice class. I met with Ruth Wolery, assistant professor of the practice of special education and director of the Susan Gray School, and thus became a part of the SGS family.

The children at Susan Gray didn’t seem fazed by me, a volunteer teacher in a wheelchair, although they were fascinated with all its motorized bells and whistles. It looks like a mobile video game in the eyes of young children. At Susan Gray wheelchairs are, for some students, normal, and teachers impress upon the children the importance of acknowledging differences.

Even though the children certainly receive an excellent education, it was clear that something had to be done about what I witnessed that day on the dirt-covered hill. I felt that my life had been spared over the last few years and that I had been given a new purpose.

When I finished for the day, I met with Professor Wolery to find out how it might be possible to apply SGS’s philosophy of acceptance and equality to the seemingly inequitable playground.

Since I first enrolled at Vanderbilt in the fall of 2002, there have always been construction projects. The Peabody College campus is undergoing a major expansion for The Commons. Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital are always expanding and adding facilities to help take care of the many lives Vanderbilt saves (including my own). Why was it that this playground seemed to be ignored?

Professor Wolery explained that SGS had been raising playground money for the past four years and had reached a total of $60,000, but that they would need to raise at least an additional $200,000 to start building a new playground. They had a detailed plan for the project and a great deal of motivation, but with all the new major projects that inevitably came up each year, the playground continually got pushed to the back burner.

My mind raced with possibilities. There are countless people out there, I thought, who would donate time and money to get this playground built if they knew what was happening. As many people had been an advocate for me through my various health complications, I needed to be an advocate for these children.

An annual SGS event called “Holidays Around the World,” which celebrates diverse cultures, became a fundraiser for the playground in 2005 and 2006 at the suggestion of Ellen Brier, assistant dean for undergraduate student affairs at Peabody. Those of us planning the 2007 event began to meet weekly to determine how we could continue the tradition with a much larger goal. We knew if we wanted to raise large amounts of money, the right people would have to be involved.

My mentor, Ann Neely, a Peabody professor who is also director of undergraduate admissions and scholarships, came up with the idea that Vanderbilt’s athletic fields are the university’s playgrounds, and that the athletes rely on these playgrounds. I loved this idea and immediately called upon my friend Shan Foster, a senior on the men’s basketball team. Shan has an incredible track record of extending his talents well beyond his playground, the basketball court. I was not surprised when he immediately agreed to help raise money for this cause. Shan’s coach, Kevin Stallings, wanted to help as well. I also met with David Williams, vice chancellor for university affairs, who is in charge of athletics, and he pledged that the athletics program would match whatever was raised at the fundraiser.

I was ecstatic because we had come so far in such a short time. Donations were pouring in. My parents, who had been nothing but supportive and encouraging, decided they wanted to help out as well. They saw how enthralled I became with the children at SGS and the project itself. Their donation, along with countless others, brought us close to our goal by the night of the event in November. Vice Chancellor Williams announced that not only would he match whatever was raised, but that Athletics would fill the void of whatever was left.

With funding now in place, a playground for all children at the Susan Gray School will finally be built. I am overwhelmed by the generosity and kind spirit I have encountered everywhere I turn. The Vanderbilt community is incredible. The continuous support that SGS has received has caused me to realize that the physical situation I am in might not be “handicapped” after all.


© 2015 Vanderbilt University

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Maureen McGann says:

As one of Kelly Finan’s former elementary teachers back in Cumberland, I find this article amazing! I am so impressed with the goal that she accomplished, her outlook on the life she has been given, and her appreciation for all that Vanderbilt and Susan Gray School have done for her! This article brought tears to my eyes. Thanks to all who have supported her and been a part of making her playground dream come true! God bless you, Kelly!

Sylvia Glustrom Schwartz, BS’45 (Atlanta) says:

This is of great interest to me. I was fortunate to work my way through George Peabody College during the World War II years, and had a fellowship in the Peabody Demonstration School Preschool under the direction of Irma Finker. I received this position through Dr. Maycie Southall, who was my major professor. Peabody was years ahead of the times in work being done in its nursery school and in the Early Childhood Department. I took several courses from Dr. Leavell, who was beginning to work with students with special needs.

I’m now an 84-year-old retired educator who has taught hundreds of children and countless teachers and teenage counselors that working with special children is equally rewarding and pleasing as working with any child. The parents and children never forget the opportunity they had because the teacher and school cared enough to make a difference. I have had special children in preschool classrooms for many years, and now I see these young adults working in society, able to live good lives through a local independent-living program. The last 35 years of my teaching career were with the Atlanta Jewish Community Center where I was a teacher, camp director, and director of early childhood services. My interest in working with the developmentally disabled students is still a major part of my volunteer life.

When I entered college in 1941, only three schools in the United States offered a degree in preschool education, including Peabody. The other two were Bank Street in New York and the University of California. We helped by beginning a beautiful thing.

Inspired says:

Hello Sylvia,
It is inspiring to see you as an 84 year old retired teacher on line – reading this story and posting such a wonderful message. Kelly is an incredible person and we should all be inspired by her determination to follow her dream and live out her calling as a teacher. Best to you always!

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