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School program at UVa hospital helps patients maintain a sense of normalcy

Every day when Fiza Youivis hears Lisa Black knock on the door, she shouts, “I’m ready for school!”

On Thursday, Black entered Fiza’s hospital room at the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital with a stack of books, worksheets and a fat yellow pencil. She pushed aside a pink, fluffy teddy bear and began guiding Fiza through writing letters and numbers.

“I know how to do it!” Fiza said, dragging the pencil to form a number seven.

Fiza, 5, loves the color pink, the Disney movie “Frozen” and going to the library. She hasn’t been able to go to the library, though, or start her kindergarten year in Fairfax, because she is waiting for a heart transplant at the hospital.

At the Children’s Hospital, though, she can participate in a special type of school: the Hospital Education Program, a partnership between the hospital, Charlottesville City Schools and the Virginia Department of Education. The three children’s teaching hospitals in the state — UVa, Eastern Virginia Medical School and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Center — have all been required to run similar programs for decades.

The Children’s Hospital school is available for any child who is admitted for treatment. Teachers lead classes, give one-on-one lessons, offer art therapy and make sure the students are ready to continue school at grade level when they return home.

“I’m so happy she’s getting an education while she’s getting treatment,” said Fiza’s mother, Sumera Iqbal. “I didn’t know this was an option until we came here; I hope more parents can know this exists.”

Black has taught at the hospital school for 17 years, working mostly with pre-K and kindergarten students. Lessons range from numbers, letters and colors to making “mermaid slime” with glitter glue and contact lens solution. If children are able, she teaches them in groups, so they can work on social skills.

Two students were diagnosed as having cancer and entered treatment at the hospital around the same time, said Deborah Johnson. They often went to class together and buddied up to work on assignments.

“They just felt comfortable together,” Johnson said. “They understood what each other was going through.”

School also helps give children a sense of normalcy, the teachers said.

“Kids know school,” Johnson said. “They’re tired of doctors, and they know teachers, so despite the eye-rolls when we say we’re here to do school, they’re usually happy to see us.”

“We’re normal for them,” agreed Mae Remer, who mainly works with high school students. “For a lot of kids, it’s the most normal part of their day.”

The teachers are also responsible for preparing students for standard end-of-year tests. Remer brushed up on her chemistry to help a high-schooler pass his Standards of Learning test. She’s also coached students on their college applications and interviews.

“We treat every kid with the assumption that they’re going to get better, and so we have to prepare them to go back and be ready for whatever’s next,” Remer said.

The school is led by Eric Johnson, who recently began as principal after serving in that role at Buford Middle School in Charlottesville for 11 years.

“It’s just inspiring to see these young folks be so resilient and so hopeful,” Johnson said. He said he gets to be more hands-on in this position.

Fiza could be in the hospital for weeks or months while she waits for a new heart, and then will have to stay home for three more months while she recovers. Until then, Black said, she’ll focus on keeping Fiza cheerful and making sure she knows how to write her name.

“Do you remember how to start?” Black asked.

Fiza began curving her pencil, then stopped and began again.

“First ‘F,’ silly me!”

CT: Building community, wellness among goals of new Charlottesville principals

The idea of “preparing students for jobs that don’t exist” has become a cliché among education professionals. But the phrase rings true for Stephanie Carter, the new principal of Buford Middle School.

She is among four new Charlottesville City Schools principals. In their first weeks on the job, each of them has employed a wide range of strategies to lay the groundwork for the 2018-19 academic year.

Click to read more at Charlottesville Tomorrow.


Lovingston nursing home reborn as assisted living facility

LOVINGSTON — More than two years after the Lovingston Health and Rehabilitation Center closed, a new center is bringing assisted living services to Nelson County.

The Region Ten Community Services Board, which provides behavioral health and developmental services throughout Central Virginia, recently turned the health and rehab facility into the Town Creek Assisted Living Center for individuals 18 and older who need help with daily living activities but want to remain as independent as possible.

The Lovingston Health and Rehabilitation Center served as a nursing home at 393 Front St. in Lovingston before closing in early 2016, with many residents relocating to the Charlottesville area. Town Creek is the only assisted living facility in Nelson.

Jody Tedder worked at the nursing home for a few years before it closed, at which time she and her patients transferred to Charlottesville.

“I hated to see the building sitting for a couple years, so I’m glad [Region Ten was] able to come back in and open it up,” said Tedder, who has returned to the area to work for Town Creek. “We don’t have anything around here like this, and I think it’s going to be great and help the community a lot.”

Tedder said the health and rehab center’s closure “was just heartbreaking” because it caused residents to be farther away from their families.

Nelson County sold the building to Region Ten last year for $1.7 million, and renovations cost about $2.3 million. Region Ten’s executive director, Lisa Beitz, said the Town Creek renovation was the building’s first since it was constructed in 1983.

“The Lovingston health care facility had good bones and a good structure, and we just made it better. We made it more modern, more beautiful, brought in light, and it has turned out to be gorgeous,” said Francee Laverty, director of the Nelson County Counseling Center and rural director for Region Ten.

Town Creek is now equipped to serve about 60 people, providing residential support for seniors, adults with disabilities and individuals needing support after a hospitalization.

Discussions of turning the health and rehabilitation center into an assisted living center started in 2016 when Region Ten’s executive director at the time, Robert Johnson, and Marcia Becker, senior director, partnered with Virginia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to “engage in a partnership of creating an opportunity for a community-based living environment with supportive services around the clock to help people transition out of a hospital stay back into the community with good support,” Beitz said.

Region Ten chose to open an assisted living center in Lovingston because “it’s a community that has the lifestyle that supports folks transitioning back into the community,” she said.

Beitz said Region Ten has submitted a licensing application to the Department of Social Services and that once it’s approved, they’ll begin to take referrals. She said residents will begin to move in this fall.

“The opportunity to have a place where people feel welcome and comfortable and have the respect and room to recover is something I think that we are so excited that it’s coming to reality at this point. We look forward to continuing the partnership with Nelson County and supporting the residents once they’re here,” Beitz said.

Town Creek will have a multi-disciplinary staff — which includes nurses, personal care aides, case managers and clinicians — on site 24/7, Beitz said.

The center also will provide 30 jobs in Nelson. Town Creek is currently seeking applications for most positions, including direct care workers, shift managers and housekeepers. Town Creek also will be hiring part-time workers as needed.

Tedder said she thinks the center will help county residents in their push to revitalize Lovingston.

“It will bring more business here, more traffic, families coming to visit. I think it’ll benefit in all kinds of ways,” she said.

On anniversary of homicide, a mother reflects

Three years ago Monday, Jason Lee “Jay” Shifflett answered a knock at the door of his Carlton Avenue trailer and came face-to-face with three masked men who pushed their way in and demanded money.

The only thing they took was Shifflett’s life and, in so doing, broke the heart of Robin Bryant, his mother.

“It’s been three years, but it seems like a lot longer than that. And it seems like yesterday all at the same time. You know what I mean?” Bryant said in a recent interview. “My daughter died years ago from crib death, and that hurt, but I had Jay in my life for 31 years. God took her and I have accepted that, but God didn’t take him. Bullets took him and I can’t accept that.”

Bryant has spent the last three years mourning. She’s also spent it prodding and protesting Charlottesville police, compiling what she believes is evidence in her son’s killing that should help them to make an arrest.

She’s also beleaguered the police about bringing the FBI in to help in the case.

“It’s like [city police] are just waiting for someone to come to their office and say, ‘here’s some evidence.’ People aren’t going to do that,” Bryant said. “I’ve given them evidence, but they still haven’t made an arrest. I want to put this behind me, but I can’t.”

Bryant has met with each of the five police chiefs or interim chiefs the city has had since her son’s death, including current Chief RaShall Brackney.

“I met with Robin on July 12 with a team of prosecutors, detectives and support personnel regarding the status of Jay’s case,” Brackney said. “The case is still open. It has not been closed or classified as a cold case.”

Brackney said she understands Bryant’s efforts but said the Shifflett case does not lend itself to FBI involvement.

“Mrs. Bryant would like the FBI to investigate the case. However, federal engagement must meet certain criteria. Unfortunately, Jay’s case does not meet that criterion, and that information was relayed to [her],” the chief said.

* * *

Jay Shifflett was a complex man. He was no stranger to the city courts and was charged and convicted of a variety of misdemeanors and minor felonies, such as assault, destruction of property and larceny.

He was also a kind man. His friends and mother remember a loyal and supportive father of a young son who was always there for others. Some have recalled publicly how Shifflett visited them while they were incarcerated, brought them food, lent them money or did personal favors for them when they were in need.

Police have not divulged a lot of information on how Shifflett came to die, but the narrative that has been released is that Shifflett answered the door shortly before 1 a.m. Sept. 3, 2015, and found the three masked men standing on the steps. They pushed their way in, demanded money, said something about a safe and then one intruder shot Shifflett several times with a handgun.

The intruders beat a hasty retreat, and police found Shifflett dead at the scene shortly after being called about shots being fired at the address.

Bryant said she believes several different people were indirectly involved in her son’s death and repeated an oft-heard rumor that the break-in was a “hit” arranged by some people in Charlottesville’s shadowy drug world.

She said she has provided names and audio recordings of some conversations but that police have not acted on that information.


* * *

Bryant noted that there have been other unsolved cases in Charlottesville in the past several years. Most recently, Samuel Lee Houchens, 53, disappeared June 20 from his home on Meridian Street.

Houchens’ family called his disappearance alarming and said the battery of his cellphone and the back of the phone were found in the backyard, but the phone itself was missing.

The family noted that the scooter used by Houchens, who had mobility issues, to get around was left at home.

Police and search and rescue crews combed Moores Creek near his home for several days, noting that heavy rains the day he was reported missing had swollen the creek. Houchens still has not been found and his disappearance is still being investigated by city police.

On July 6, 2014, shortly after 2 a.m., Otis Edward Scott, 27, was shot on Prospect Avenue and taken by friends to the University of Virginia Medical Center, where he died. No arrests have been made.

Pherbia Tinsley was shot July 14, 2012, while sitting in her car on Prospect Avenue. Her purse and wallet were missing and police suspect robbery as a possible motive. No arrests have been made.

Sage Smith, a 19-year-old transgender woman who was last seen in November 2012 near the Amtrak station on West Main Street, has never been located. The case was revived in May. Smith has not been found, no one has been arrested and police have been unable to locate Eric McFadden, a person of interest in the case.

Brackney said that although no arrests have been made, police are working the cases.

“Each case assigned to our investigations branch is given individualized time, attention and care. As information develops and leads are pursued, we employ local, state and possibly federal resources that can assist us throughout the investigative and prosecutorial processes,” she said.

“Our approach is not a ‘one-size-fits-all,’ but tailored to address the unique circumstances of each case,” Brackney said. “Although loved ones are always kept abreast of our investigative efforts, understandably those updates may not bring them comfort or their desired outcomes.”

For Bryant, the frustration and grief of her son’s death and lack of arrests sometimes are overwhelming.      

“I can’t deal with it. I see my son’s face like the day I gave birth to him. Then I see his face the last time I saw him,” she said. “I want to go down to the [cemetery] and dig my son up and bring him home and put him back in his bedroom, where he belongs, but I can’t do that. He’s dead, and he shouldn’t be dead.”