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A New Space For Heartworks
Brand-new classrooms raise the bar
August 21, 2020

n July, Heartworks welcomed 48 children to its newly built classroom complex for the Summer Learning Program. The new building took nearly a year to build and sits behind the original Heartworks structure. Six individual spacious classrooms will accommodate Heartworks’ nearly 150 students.

“We wanted to create an environment that was more conducive to learning and that could maximize the support that the kids within the community needed in order to thrive long-term,” Program Director Tunmorya Bennett said. Bennett began working at Heartworks in January and was previously the principal at Fred A. Anderson Elementary School.

Inside one of the classrooms.

Heartworks is a nonprofit community service agency located at 709 Main Street in Bayboro. Its stated mission “is to address the underserved mental and physical health needs of children and their families in Pamlico County.”

The addition was envisioned three years ago as Heartworks was deciding how to better serve those needs. It took nearly a year to complete the plans. Construction of the new buildings took another year. The space takes into consideration the needs of the children as well as the organization – a large bank of solar panels was added to the roof of one building to help offset the cost of the center’s utility bill.

The new classrooms provide children with the opportunity to have their own space to grow intellectually and to interact with their peers again, especially after losing the last few months of their school year due to COVID-19.

Tunmorya Bennett wears a mask while discussing the new complex.
Program Director Tunmorya Bennett shows off the students’ work in the new classrooms.

“I think social and emotional skills are really important at this time,” Bennett said. “Bringing kids into an environment that minimizes the number of kids that they can be with allows them to practice those social skills so when they do transition back to a school or a regular classroom with the ideal 20 to 25 kids, they are going to have those skills that they learned in a smaller, structured environment.”

In addition to the new complex, Heartworks is also dedicated to a focus on project-based learning and STEAM programming, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. This program is an extension of the nationally recognized STEM program, with the added ‘art’ component. The Heartworks teachers dubbed this summer’s learning theme ‘full STEAM ahead.’

An empty classroom with a tilted ceiling that lets in light.A brightly colored rug sits in a corner. Windows are on both walls.An empty classroom with light furnishings.
The new complex has six large individual classrooms that let in the light.

Bennett explained how children are making skeletons out of spaghetti noodles, constructing towers out of marshmallows, and getting the chance to explore their creative side with projects that integrate literacy and mathematics.

“When we first started this summer we were thinking of ways that we could really get kids to transition back to a structured environment yet be engaged,” Bennett said. “Those type of STEAM activities allow them to communicate and collaborate in a more productive way and I think a lot of them need that interaction with other children. It also allows them to think critically which is something we are really trying to push for. It’s exciting that they get to touch and build and make a lot of things that they can actually take home with them at the end of the day.”

The focus on creative projects and the addition of the new space has given the children a new sense of autonomy in their learning.

“There’s more personal ownership on everybody’s part now,” Executive Director Karen Prince said of the new program. “The kids even seem more focused and engaged. Ms. Bennett has upped our game exponentially with her expertise, her education background and her heart. We are headed in the direction which we need to go for the kids of Pamlico County.”

In the courtyard.
The courtyard of the new complex. Clear panels were added to the bare trusses to create a covered, light-filled walkway around the courtyard. Classes can take place inside or outside on the wooden benches.

Heartworks serves a diverse group of children from a variety of social, economic and educational backgrounds. The new space serves to better accommodate all students in the program.

“The hope with the new building is to maintain the same number of children that the program serves – regularly around 150 children – but divide into smaller groups so the children have more individual attention and the student to teacher ratio is smaller,” Bennett said.

“Normally in the summer,” said Prince, “we have around 100 to 120 kids for 11 hours a day and every child goes on at least one or two field trips a week. Right now they are here four hours a day with a maximum of 48 kids and we do not transport them anywhere.”

A masked teacher helps her student arrange colored geometric shapes on a projector.
Playing with shapes in one of six new classrooms.

To support students with Read to Achieve requirements, HeartWorks staffs its third grade class with two certified, veteran teachers. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, this program requires those in the third grade to meet a certain level of reading proficiency necessary for secondary education and career success.

Usually, children would have access to summer educational programs through public schools to help them meet those state requirements, but because of COVID-19 restrictions those programs have been cancelled. Prince said Heartworks is the only way these children can access the educational resources they need to excel in the upcoming school year.

When asked how the children are liking the new space, Bennett explained the changes she saw in the students after only three days of experiencing the complex.

A large room, once a car dealership showroom floor, used to house all the classrooms.
In the original building, four classrooms were set up in the old dealership showroom, separated by dividers. Director Karen Prince said it could get very loud. The space is now being converted into a cafeteria with a stage and enclosed art room.

“They love the new space,” Bennett said. “You can tell by their mannerisms how much better they feel about coming to an environment that is a little bit more conducive to learning and quieter. They have a cubby and it becomes their own. They see it as their space and they take care of it and they nurture it. They get out of the car in the morning and they are running to the building. In the afternoon some of them roll their windows down and I ask them how their day was and they say, ‘I had a great day, I’m ready to come back.’ Some kids wish that the program was even longer because they are enjoying it that much. I think that they are very appreciative.”

Prior to the addition of the new space, all programs were housed in the original facility, purchased by Heartworks founders, Sue and Rod Lee.

The Lees both grew up in Pamlico County and moved away to pursue their own successful business ventures in Virginia. They returned to Pamlico in 2000. Sue moved her pediatric practice here and saw firsthand the needs of the children in this community were not being met. This led to the founding of Stillwaters Counseling Center, which offers counseling to children, teens, adults and couples at its office in Bayboro and usually local schools, daycares and after-school programs. Stillwaters is part of the Heartworks program.

A masked teacher and a student work on an art project.
Art projects inside one of the new classrooms. During the Summer Learning Program, class sizes were smaller due to social distancing requirements.

Before Stillwaters, the closest options for many children in Pamlico to receive counseling services were in New Bern. This meant many children were not able to get those services. After starting the counseling center, the Lees realized the need for after school programs. They purchased the original Heartworks building down the road from Stillwaters to compensate for that deficit.

The white and blue structure was previously a car dealership and consisted of office spaces for staff, a small tutoring space, two classrooms, a kitchen and one large room in the back which was divided up with partitions to create classrooms for the different age groups. The room that housed the students had concrete floors and walls, and high ceilings that amplified any noise.

“There was a lot of love going on in that chaos,” Bennett said. “The teachers that have been here from the beginning still have that love for working with and educating children. I think from transitioning from that space to this space has just intensified that and made it so much better.”

The original Heartworks building is also getting a makeover. The large, all-purpose room where the classrooms were has been reimagined. Half the space now houses an art and music room next to a large stage that looks out into what will be a cafeteria space. The stage is intended for child-led performances that would take place during family dinners (after the pandemic). The space will also include two private counseling rooms.

The program director wears a mask as she arranges children's books on a wooden bookshelf.
Tunmorya Bennett arranges books on a bookshelf in the new building.

Music has long been a part of the Heartworks experience thanks to many volunteers devoting their time and expertise to the students. Volunteer Coordinator and Heartworks Board Member Katherine Hudson has been with the program for six years. She has brought a number of passionate volunteers to share their knowledge and specialties with the children.

“We had an international club, gardening, music lessons, especially a lot of children learning how to read music,” Hudson said. “Some of those kids went on to get into the middle school band. It makes you so happy when you see this child feel confident enough having learned how to read music on a little flute-a-phone and now playing a saxophone or a trombone.”

Prince recounted one family dinner during Christmas time last year where some of the children put on a musical performance and one of them even played a trombone. “It was absolutely gorgeous,” Prince recalled. “We want to do more fun things like that.”

Prior to COVID-19, one volunteer brought in African drums every week and taught the kids how to use them. Many of the students found this calming and engaging, said Prince, and they eagerly looked forward to the weekly opportunity.

Three children sit at a table, coloring in books.
Students in the Summer Learning Program.

“These are things that they wouldn’t have been able to do had they not been here and I think that’s something that we’re really striving for,” Bennett said, “giving them opportunities to see and do things that they would not otherwise have access to.”

Once COVID-19 restrictions loosen, Prince, Hudson and Bennett look forward to filling the new complex and renovated original space with their community of volunteers. Although they are not currently admitting volunteers, Heartworks is accepting donations and is hosting an online auction from September 23 through September 30 in lieu of its regular annual fundraiser, HarborFest.

An aerial view of the HeartWorks complex.An aerial side vie of the complex showing newly installed grass and two playgorunds.A large solar panel array decorates the top of one of the buildings.
Heartworks with the original building and new complexes.

Story & photos by Katie Kane

Posted Friday August 21, 2020 by Allison DeWeese

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