University City

Badges now aid special needs children

A few simple graphics could change the way special-needs students communicate at one Charlotte elementary school.

The designs are simple. The story behind them is not.

A small school logo on the back corner of students' badges will indicate to staff at Stoney Creek Elementary School that the student has special needs. A small graphic, also on the back, will help special needs students show teachers how they're feeling, which can be difficult for some students to express otherwise.

Stoney Creek Principal Gina Smith said the designs could provide "real time information" about a student's needs.

"Students come in contact with many individuals in a day," she said. "These graphics will be available to assist all teachers in how to respond in certain situations as well as provide intervention and support that is student-specific."

The school likely will implement the graphics, designed by parent Stacy Matthews, this month.

Stacy Matthews, 34, who lives in the University City area, always gravitated toward the creative. Her mom, a florist, sewed Matthews' clothes, and when the family couldn't afford Cabbage Patch Dolls, she sewed those, too.

Matthews loved painting and interior decorating. She's painted the walls in her house with a faux finish and redecorated her church.

But her artistic plans were waylaid in high school when she graduated five months pregnant and was job searching four months after her son's birth. She and her husband took jobs with First Union; he as a file boy and she in data entry.

She'd worked her way up to an executive assistant at Bank of America before she was laid off in 2008.

Friends suggested she go into interior design, but she didn't think it would be fulfilling. She wanted a job where she could use her creative abilities to help people.

She heard on the news about Workforce Investment Act (WIA) services, a program that helps displaced workers get training for a new job. Matthews qualified and enrolled in the advertising and graphic design program at Central Piedmont Community College, where she has excelled.

"As soon as I got there, I knew it was what I wanted to do," she said. "It's more than just making things pretty. They teach you how to problem solve, how to use your abilities and talents for the good and how you can go out into your environment and make it better."

Matthews' instructors at CPCC describe her as a leader and excellent student.

"One of the things that we do is we encourage our students to be above average, and she is way above average in terms of her work ethic and wanting to learn and constantly wanting to improve her skills and her ability to think creatively," said Kenn Compton, CPCC advertising and graphic design instructor.

This year, Matthews took on an annual project where graphic design students plan and host their own portfolio show. Her fellow students unanimously chose her as project leader.

Started with her son

An assignment in one of Matthews' final classes challenged students to use their design skills to help in the community.

Matthews quickly had an idea. Her fifth-grade son, Elijah, has mild autism, and she's already spent countless hours helping him.

She talked with autism groups around Mecklenburg County, asking them what was their greatest need. She knew from Elijah's experience that high-functioning children with autism who spend most of the day in a mainstream classroom need a lot of structure or "you're going to have a mess on your hands."

Children interact with school staff throughout the day who might not realize a child has special needs, Matthews said.

"Staff needed to know which kids were autistic," Matthews said. "Elijah would ask for help, and he would be turned away or dismissed because that staff member didn't know Elijah was autistic."

She designed graphics to help. A tiny school mascot on the back of a child's school badge indicates that a child has special needs, and a color-coded scale helps children show staff how much help they need if they feel out of sorts.

Colors indicate whether they need someone to help right them or if they need to go somewhere else to cool down.

CPCC advertising and graphic design instructor Courtney Kimball praised the system's simple design, saying it was one of the best ideas in the class.

"It wasn't a burden on the school," Kimball said. "It made minor changes that made a very big difference in how these students could be more (easily) identified and community communicate with teachers more effectively.

"She used what was in place and made it work."

Matthews will graduate this year after completing an internship with TEACCH, a service, training and research program that helps people with autism. She continues to brainstorm ways to use graphic design to help others.

"I am just really into helping people and being out there," she said. "I thank God for giving me a second chance through this (graphic design program). This layoff was a true blessing in disguise."