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Late teacher’s dream for sensory room comes true

<i>Francis Gardler/Lincoln Journal Star</i><br/>Seven-year-old Avery Walls plays with a fidget board in the new sensory room at Weeping Water Elementary School.
Francis Gardler/Journal Star
Francis Gardler/Lincoln Journal Star
Seven-year-old Avery Walls plays with a fidget board in the new sensory room at Weeping Water Elementary School.

By Zack Hammack

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    WEEPING WATER, Nebraksa (Lincoln Journal Star) — The note in Katrina “K.T.” Bescheinen’s desk was scribbled with ideas and spur-of-the-moment inspirations, a blueprint for a dream.

A vision, as her colleagues explained, to create a space for the special education teacher’s “kiddos” at Weeping Water Elementary School.

A room where they could go on a bad day, to put their mind at ease, an oasis from the sensory overload of a busy school day. A space with soft lighting and music and weighted blankets.

It’s called a sensory room, a space you might find in bigger school districts but not in a town like Weeping Water with just north of 1,000 people.

But Bescheinen wanted to build the space nonetheless, so she brought the idea to school officials, who quickly jumped on board. She even prepared to write a grant to fund the project.

“I’ll never forget the tears in her eyes and the smile — she was just so excited,” Principal Bristol Wenzl said. “She thought there was no way that someone was going right along with her idea.”

But soon the project was put on pause for another reason.

Bescheinen, who had battled cancer for years, needed more treatment. The pandemic hit. Schools shut down.

In August, she entered hospice care.

When staff members cleaned out her desk, after Bescheinen died Nov. 30, 2020, at age 37, they discovered that note.

And when her friends and family brainstormed an idea to memorialize the teacher, they wanted to give back to the students she had devoted her life to.

They wanted to do something more purposeful.

The dream started years ago.

Larry Ortegren, Bescheinen’s stepfather, and her mother, Gail Ortegren, would hear about the work their daughter was doing at Weeping Water. A third-generation teacher, Bescheinen helped special education students — like those with autism — struggling with sensitivities to sensory stimuli, like noises and lights.

She understood the needs of these students firsthand, her stepfather said — Bescheinen’s two teenage sons have cystic fibrosis.

Although she brought her own tools to help those students cope, she wanted a space devoted to them.

“Even seven or eight years ago, she was sending me these things: ‘Mom, look at this for a sensory room,'” Gail Ortegren said. “She was planning for years.”

She would even send her stepfather, who’s crafty with barnwood, pictures of items he could make for her special room. She would jot down ideas on that note tucked away in her desk, too.

“This was one of her dreams,” he said.

After Bescheinen passed, the Ortegrens and two second-grade teachers, Stacy Bickford and Chris Meeske, were intent on realizing this dream.

So Bickford and Meeske gave a presentation to the school board. Enthusiasm for the project was high.

Do what you can to make this the best sensory room in Nebraska, the board told them. Our kids need this.

Go big or go home.

In the middle of Weeping Water, on the second floor of the elementary section of the town’s school, is a room unlike any other.

With its blue-painted walls, black curtains draped over windows and subdued lighting, the space invokes a certain calmness. A needed break from the fluorescent-flooded hallways of the school, which has about 130 elementary students.

An oasis for children with autism or ADHD or anxiety — or for those just needing a break from the classroom. A place where they can regroup for 10 to 15 minutes before returning to class to learn.

On shelves and tables — under lights filtered through blue screens — are noise-canceling headphones and weighted blankets, objects to fidget with and whiteboards to draw on, a beanbag chair and colorful, squishy beads filled with water.

“It’s a quiet space. It’s time away,” said Weeping Water special education director Amy Kroll. “It’s not a place for you to go in there and just play. It’s very thought-out.”

It’s a sensory room, the one Bescheinen had envisioned.

After the board gave approval to the project, an online fundraiser was started and the donations began flowing in. T-shirts were sold — with funds matched by Modern Woodmen — and the school was awarded a grant. In total, more than $10,000 was raised.

With money in hand, work began in earnest this past summer to get the room ready for the fall.

Kroll worked with Assistology, an Omaha company that specializes in creating sensory rooms, to purchase the items they would need — from weighted blankets to roll-out “sensory pads” and colorful floor tiles that transform like lava lamps.

Each item has a purpose, Kroll said. A thick binder, filled with laminated pages, explains how to use each one correctly and how to take care of it. Teachers are also able to check out items from the room, like the sensory pads that can be used for activities, such as hopscotch.

“It’s a tool, not a toy,” Kroll said.

The walls were painted a calming shade of blue. A fidget board in the shape of an alligator was hung on the wall. Items were organized onto shelves. The little notes Bescheinen had jotted down — the ones discovered in her desk — help guide the process.

The school is hoping it can be a way to address the mental health needs of its students, Wenzl said.

“We’re seeing a lot more anxiety and stress in kids than we ever have,” the principal said. “And that’s something we’re constantly talking about for staff and students: ‘How can we help meet those mental health needs?'”

There’s also growing research that shows sensory input is vital to student learning, said Kroll. Kids are overwhelmed with all sorts of stimuli during the school day that can get in the way of learning.

“We’ve never really understood that before,” she said.

In the room is more wisdom, too, a quote framed high on one of the walls.

One of the many bits of advice Bescheinen would tell her fellow teachers: Choose joy.

She was known for her mottoes like this, her mother, Gail Ortegren, said.

When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2017, it was, “Enjoy the little things.” After the cancer spread to her lungs the next year, it was “Choose joy.”

Then in August 2020, when she started hospice care, it was “Faith over fear.”

“She was not scared,” her colleague Chris Meeske said. “I don’t think I could have that kind of resilience.”

Meeske and Stacy Bickford, another colleague, had been friends with Bescheinen for years in a group colloquially called the Flamingo Girls, named for an inside joke between the friends.

Soon enough, flamingos became a symbol of Bescheinen’s fight, and when she was battling cancer, the women got tattoos of the bird.

The legs formed letters.

A pair of initials.

K.T.

When a volleyball match between Conestoga and Weeping Water concluded Tuesday night, the crowd’s attention turned away from sports for a moment.

Bescheinen’s stepfather, Larry Ortegren, was there to speak, joined by friends and colleagues of Bescheinen, to unveil the sensory room after months of work.

They picked this particular night on purpose — Bescheinen’s two sons attend Conestoga. Both communities had rallied behind her before, too.

Last November, for example, at a football game between the two schools, Bescheinen was there, presented with a bouquet of flowers during halftime.

Donations for the sensory room came in from both communities, too. It’s what small towns do, Larry Ortegren said.

“They take care of everybody.”

At the open house, there were Baker’s chocolates wrapped in pink, specially made for the event. Flamingos were painted on signs hung around the school.

Dozens streamed in and out of the room — volleyball players and little kids and parents.

“I could have spent several hours in there by myself,” said Larry Ortegren, laughing. “Her dream had finally come true.”

Earlier in the day before the open house, Kroll, the special education director, walked in there, too, and sensed a presence in the room — the memory of Bescheinen within those blue-painted walls.

“She’s here,” she said. “She’s here.”

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