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Brown speaks about Valley Haven School during COVID

VALLEY — Valley Haven School had a very trying year in 2020, but things look to be very much on the rebound in 2021. Valley Haven may not get back to where it was pre-pandemic, but there’s a much brighter outlook now than there was just a few weeks ago. Executive Director Craig Brown discussed this at Wednesday’s noon-hour meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Valley.

On March 13, 2020, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency due to the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. Following state guidelines, Valley Haven closed that same day.

“At the time we were hoping it would last for a few weeks, but we were closed for six months,” Brown said. “We had 74 adult clients when we closed. Six of them died during the shutdown, some directly because of COVID and some possibly due to the inactivity it caused.”

Valley Haven reopened in September with 27 students returning. With 25,000 square feet of space, there was plenty of room in the building to have small class sizes and social distancing. Everyone in the building wore a mask. The number of students rose to 34 at the end of the year, but things got worse in the first few weeks of the new year. There was a COVID outbreak. With more and more clients staying at home, the number of students dropped to 13 at one time.

“We were wondering if we could still function as a school,” Brown said.

There was hope in the form of getting everyone vaccinated. “The numbers have grown since then,” Brown said. “We are now up to 52 and hoping for more.”

Daily attendance and fundraising are very important for the school. School officials have to account for every 15-minute period a client is at the school in order to receive funding. For the 12-month period going into March 2020, Valley Haven received close to $315,000. For the same period between March 2020 and March 2021, it fell to $54,000.

The school’s principal fundraiser, the Hike/Bike/Run, was canceled in 2020. A few events, such as virtual runs and the Walt Meadors Invitational Golf Tournament in August managed to bring in $35,000. It was helpful but far short of the $100,000 goal that’s set for a Hike/Bike/Run. Hike/Bike/Run 2021 was a different story. Despite the loss of LaFayette Day due to stormy weather, the Hike/Bike/Run managed to get past the $100,000 mark when everything was counted.

“We made $103,000,” Brown said. “It was awesome, overwhelming. We never thought we’d come anywhere close to that, but thanks to the support we receive from this community we did.”

Another setback to the school involves the loss of some key people with many years of service. The assistant director, Paula Frazier, retired with 45 years of service to the school. Neal McCurdy, a teacher, retired with 30 years of service. “You just can’t replace people like that,” Brown said. “Another dedicated employee, Tommy Benton, died.”

The lengthy pandemic created a big deficit for Valley Haven. “We will have to figure out how to keep going,” Brown said. “It’s going to be hard, but we will do the best we can. I can’t brag enough on this community and how it has supported us over the years. People I meet who live outside Chambers County are always telling me that we have something really special in Valley Haven and that we have such a supportive community.”

There is a waiting list of clients from all over the state who are seeking admittance to ARC-affiliated schools. Valley Haven could pick up around nine or ten of them. “We are hoping to get more clients into the building,” Brown said. “Funding is our biggest headache. We are dealing with it the best we can. Some of our former clients haven’t come back because of underlying health conditions and the fear of getting COVID. Some of them who told us early on that they wouldn’t be back have since re-joined us.”

Brown said that participation in Valley Haven programs is a big part of their lives. When they are away from the school, they miss it and miss seeing their classmates and their teachers.

Valley Haven did receive some stimulus money to help get through some difficult periods. “We never missed a pay period,” Brown said. “That was really important.”

Brown is optimistic that brighter days are ahead. “My daughter is a student at Auburn,” he said. “They are talking about having full classes this fall and a full football stadium on weekends. Positive things are happening. I think things will be much better this fall. I thank you for letting me speak today, and I appreciate your support of Valley Haven School.”

Valley Haven offers programs for adults and children. The adult program has basic education classes, independent living skills training and vocational training. The early intervention program is for infants and toddlers up to age three and includes speech, occupational and physical therapy. The school’s legal name is the Arc of the Chattahoochee Valley. It’s affiliated with the Alabama Department of Mental Health and located on Fairfax Bypass in Valley.

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