Nothing brightens a room quite like the smile on Mackenzie Wilbanks’ face.
Born with an extremely rare genetic disorder, Mackenzie, now almost 5 years old, is profoundly disabled and has never been able to walk or form words to talk, or even eat for sustenance. But at The Little Light House – Central Mississippi, Mackenzie makes progress daily with a song in her heart.
“She gets excited to go to school, more than words can describe. And she sings lots of songs … songs about the days of the week and the weather, Christian songs and children’s songs. Anything and everything that she does is music,” said her mother, Chelcie Wilbanks of Ridgeland.
While smiling and singing may seem like small victories to some, being part of the group and participating in class have made a significant difference in Mackenzie’s world, Wilbanks noted.
“One thing I noticed when she first started was, within a month, she was vocalizing and smiling where she wasn’t before. Used to, if she was in a crowd or a noisy place, she would seclude herself. Her becoming part of the class has really been huge for me,” she explained.
Now in her fourth year at Little Light House, Mackenzie receives one-on-one care specifically tailored to her special needs. With the aid of a light box built by her teacher, Mackenzie is learning to focus on objects and to recognize different shapes and textures.
“Her plan is catered more to vision. It’s hard for her to focus on things. Light is what she’s drawn to, so the light box has really helped. The physical therapy has also helped her make progress in a lot of other areas. She’s able to feed now without choking on it, and she can hold objects in her hand. Just being able to hold her head up now is tremendous progress for her,” Wilbanks said.
The Little Light House is a tuition-free developmental center that has been making a difference in the lives of children with special needs for more than 30 years. Founded in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1972, The Little Light House opened its first affiliate school in Central Mississippi in January of 2006. Located at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Jackson, The Little Light House – Central Mississippi is financially and operationally independent of its parent school in Tulsa.
With early intervention programs of intensive therapeutic care and cognitive remediation for children birth to six years, the Little Light House addresses each child’s physical ability, wellness, mind, and community and promotes systematic, long-term, healthy change year-round. A Bible-based curriculum specifically designed for children with special needs is the foundation for the classroom structure. Working alongside parents, staff members develop individual education plans with measurable goals for each child. Support groups, seminars and practical training sessions are also provided for the families of children with special needs, assisting them with the parenting and remediation of their children. More than an organization, the Little Light House is a ministry.
“Seeing the people who volunteer their time and their lives to come in and pour their hearts into these kids is amazing to me. The teachers and volunteers all love and invest in our children. Everybody here pours everything they have into our kids and leaves their outside world outside. No matter what’s going on in their lives, it’s all about the kids here,” said Wilbanks, tears welling in her eyes.
The services at the Little Light House are carried out by a highly credentialed staff of Christian professionals. The Little Light House Central Mississippi is accredited by the International Christian Accrediting Association.
“We have 31 children and four classrooms now. Each class has a certified teacher with a background in special needs education and an assistant. We work off a large group of volunteers, retired school teachers, homemakers, grandmothers, and parents, and some who come in to help feed lunch,” said Faye Hollingsworth, Executive Director. “Our waiting list is down to 33 now. Opening this last classroom 18 months ago gave eight more children the ability to come in. We also have three therapists on staff, providing speech, occupational and physical therapy for the children, in addition to what they receive outside of school.”
“The Biblical principle we are founded on is that we incur no debt. The only bill I pay every month is a phone bill. We are tuition free, and we don’t receive any type of state or federal funding,” she explained. “We wouldn’t be able to keep our doors open without grants, businesses and individuals. We have a lot who give annually.”
The center’s biggest fundraiser, The 4th Annual Laps for Little Ones 5K & Fun Run, is set for Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, at Jackson Academy. Last year’s Run raised almost $92,000, Hollingsworth said. “We are hoping to reach $100,000 this year. We are always looking for sponsorships and runners,” she added, noting that virtual runners can participate at www.llhms.org. Other annual fundraising events include an early spring garden party and a spring golf tournament.
Carolyn McLemore, President of Little Light House’s Board of Directors, has seen lots of changes in the eight years that she has been involved.
“We have doubled the classrooms and number of students we can take. There’s a long waiting list usually. And we are excited to have added to our ranks – thanks to the generosity of a major donor – our Director of Development, Sweyn Simrall, who has secured a grant writer for us, Rachel Melton,” McLemore said.
The Board’s focus, she said, is to continue directing dollars toward care and treatment and teaching the children. “We are really ramping up our exposure and visibility effort all across the state, and we are working diligently to incorporate the medical community – hospitals, doctors and clinics – and also the academic community, by getting speech, physical and occupational therapy students involved, as well as social workers, and even engineers,” McLemore explained, citing instances were engineers in Tulsa developed sensory and motor skills equipment for the children at the Little Light House mother school.
“We want to get the best technology for the kids and get them involved. With more technology exposure for the kids, like communication devices for nonverbal students, light boxes for sensory stimulation in the classrooms, and sensory toys, we can help build more confidence in them. I am so proud, because when Little Light House kids go mainstream, the teachers can tell because they are so far advanced compared to other kids with special needs,” she said.
Anybody wanting to tour the school, volunteer or make a donation can call The Little Light House – Central Mississippi office at (601) 956-6131.
“If you’re having a really bad day, if the check didn’t come in the mail or your newspaper didn’t get delivered, The Little Light House is a great place to come to. You’ll get lots of hugs and lots of love here,” Hollingsworth said.