Happy Thanksgiving: New Lights for Students with Differences

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Going into Thanksgiving, Invictus Academy Tampa Bay was in a rough spot. Picture a school for students with motor and sensory differences in a building with harsh, buzzing lights.

A Unique Problem

They moved into their new location in January 2019, and the teachers’ hearts sank. Here they were helping students with motor and sensory differences, and their new building lighting was not only abrasive, but noisy. They tried to make the conditions as comfortable as possible for the students, but it was a difficult task.

“We put in lamps, and we turn off lights occasionally for breaks,” said Invictus Academy Co-Director Jennifer Mulry. “But to meet health department guidelines, every single light has to be operational and on.”

These guidelines make sense on paper but have made life at the school very difficult. Their case is a unique one, being one of only four schools in the entire world dedicated to students with motor and sensory differences.

“All of our students don’t have the ability to communicate reliably,” explained Invictus Academy Founder Dana Johnson. “If they were in a public or private school, they would be seen as cognitively delayed. We support them with reliable communication so they can show us what they know and we can help them reach their goals.”

And they seem to be doing a good job of that, with student testimonials like “I am happy to call this place my home… Letter boarding has changed my life; I love it so much it hurts,” and “I managed to open myself up to possibilities that I never knew existed.”

Although the students have been learning and growing in the new building, their experiences have been severely impacted by the loud, exhausting lights. The school knew something had to be done, so they began cold calling people in the area around Thanksgiving to see what steps they could take.

A Friendly Hand

One of the people who picked up was City Electric Supply New Port Richey Outside Sales Rep Bob Schultz.

“They were looking for lighting solutions because the lights were really bothering the children,” said Schultz. “They wanted to know if I could recommend something, so I headed over. When I got there, I saw they had old fluorescent lights with garbage bags over them to block some of the light. Even the ballasts in the fixtures were bothering students with their humming.”

Schultz was happy to crack the code and propose a solution — getting rid of the ballasts and using lighter-colored LED tubes. The only problem was that the price of the job was not what the school was expecting.

“It felt like the worst sales call of my life,” said Schultz. “I left feeling like a jerk after telling her how much everything would cost. They don’t even have a maintenance person to do it for them. She said they’d have to hold off because they didn’t realize how much it would cost and that they’d try to make the best of what they had.”

Schultz had a pit in his stomach, but he had to leave for his next sales call with friend and electrician, Nick Ellis at Duckworth Boats. Ellis noticed something was wrong and asked Schultz what was on his mind.

After filling him in, Ellis immediately said he’d be happy to install the lights if Schultz could find a way to get them.

“Even if there are 140 lights, I’m glad to help,” said Ellis. “Whatever we have to do, we’re going to do it.”

A Happy Phone Call

Ellis’ readiness to help changed everything. The wheels started spinning in Schultz’s head. He raced back to the branch and started making calls.

First call — Keystone Technologies was on board, offering to donate half of the lights.

Next call — CES District Manager Dan Pippin said CES could donate the other half. (In an interesting turn of events, Pippin even revealed that he used to attend the very church that currently hosts the school.)

“I was excited to be able to help,” said Pippin. “The current lighting was very poor, and CES had an opportunity to provide a serious upgrade to what they had.”

Schultz’s next call was to the school. Only a few hours before, he’d left them with bad news and a pit in his stomach. He was thrilled to call them back so soon to break infinitely better news.

“It was shocking,” said Mulry. “We serve children with very specific visual sensitivities. The current lights are hard on everybody. Even us typical adults, within an hour of being in them, want them off. They’re so tiring. For the kids to be able to work all day under these lights is very difficult, and I’m just so excited to see what’s about to happen. We couldn’t be more grateful.”

A Big Change

Faculty and staff are excited to see the change in lighting make a significant impact on the students’ productivity and comfortability.

“This is significant because it’s going to support [the students] and the learning that will help them be successful,” explained Invictus Academy Tampa Bay Founder Dana Johnson. “To complete their schoolwork, to be able to reach their goals of graduation — it’s not just a change for today. It’s a big deal for the long run.”

And it’s also a big help to another important group of people.

“Alongside our students benefiting from this, our staff and teachers are as well,” said Invictus Academy Tampa Bay Co-Director Maddy Ishmael. “We know that the lights affect us, and we constantly want to turn them off. Having soft lighting when they also have to be looking at their computers so often is going to be so beneficial to them and will help them get relaxation so they’re able to teach.”

The school was so grateful that Jennifer Mulry wrote the City Electric Supply branch a letter. She wrote, “I have been searching for an answer to this problem for a while; however, being a small non-profit does not allow for much budgetary room for large projects. You are providing us with a huge gift, and our school will be forever grateful.”

A Happy Thanksgiving

It’s a heartwarming story — and what better time for the school to receive the retrofit than right before Thanksgiving? Schultz and Ellis headed over on November 21 to get the job done.

“It was not planned for the Saturday right before Thanksgiving,” laughed Schultz. “We were supposed to do it earlier. But doing it closer to Thanksgiving helps me feel even better about giving back. My mom just recently passed away, and I know she is looking down and proud of me. Giving back is a big thing for me.”

“I don’t think they could have picked a better time. The word Thanksgiving says it all,” said Ellis. “I think CES has stepped up to the plate as a company. It’s what this community is all about. I couldn’t praise the CES New Port Richey branch enough for asking me to give them a hand. I get to sleep better at night for that.”

The job was a success, and it couldn’t have happened without the help of every single person and company that stepped up to lend a hand — Pippin, Schultz, Ellis, CES New Port Richey Branch Manager Justin Terregrossa, City Electric Supply, Keystone Technologies, and Scott Robbins with Metra Associates who assisted in the Keystone donation, to name a few.

With everyone’s help, the school got 11 hours of work and all of the materials required for the job completely free, saving the non-profit approximately $4,000. It’s sure to be a happy Thanksgiving for the school, the students, and every single person who got to be a part of this inspiring project.

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