Amy Wylie and Donna Darnell. Photo by Will Crooks

Donna Darnell and Amy Wylie are not your everyday teachers, for quite a few reasons.

The pair has worked side by side for a remarkable 33 years, and with that kind of history and rapport, the two don’t miss a beat. Darnell and Wylie are close friends, both in and outside of the classroom, and they often bounce ideas and suggestions off one another without a second thought.

“We wouldn’t know how to not work with each other,” Darnell says.

Together, Darnell and Wylie are responsible for teaching 15 special education students at J.L. Mann High School. And now, they are working to give those students the trip of a lifetime.

For the past few months, Darnell and Wylie have been raising money to take their students, known as the SPECIALS (Students Pursue Exceptional Challenges In All Life Skills), to Walt Disney World in Orlando in March 2018.

Darnell and Wylie’s students, who range between the ages of 14 and 21, are intellectually and/or physically disabled in some way, and many function at a preschool to kindergarten level.

In their two classrooms, Darnell and Wylie follow the Unique Curriculum, which is based on state standards and focuses on building day-to-day life skills. Wylie explains that they focus on “basic life skills that most students growing up get without practicing, where our students need a little more practice and one-on-one attention to [learn] those skills.”

“Our teaching comes from real-life scenarios,” she adds.

Darnell and Wylie utilize the world as their classroom, which is why the trip to Disney World is so important. It serves as a way for students to explore a new place, interact with new people, and learn, all while having fun. The two teachers want to provide the SPECIALS with an experience that many high schoolers receive: the opportunity to go on field trips and learn in different spaces.

“The kids are so excited for the trip. They ask about it every single day.” –Amy Wylie

Given some of the students’ physical limitations and cognitive abilities, there are some obstacles that come with traveling 530 miles to Orlando for a multiday stay. The SPECIALS must travel with nearly a 1-to-1 student-to-staff ratio to account for the required nurses and additional adult supervision. Other logistics include having 10 wheelchairs to load and unload onto buses, procuring handicapped-accessible accommodations, cost of food, and obtaining Fast Passes for students and teachers. Ultimately, the estimated cost for a five-day trip is $34,000.

Alongside their students, Darnell and Wylie have been working hard to reach their financial goal to cover the total cost of the trip. Because of the economic situation of many of the students’ parents, families are not asked to contribute financially. One fundraising effort has included a letter writing campaign to local businesses to solicit donations. Willy Taco, located at 217 Laurens Road, will be hosting a ticketed fundraiser on Jan. 8, 2018, where $10 of every $12 ticket will go toward the Disney trip.

“The kids are so excited for the trip,” Wylie said. “They ask about it every single day. And it’s not like we can just reach part of our goal. We need the full amount so that we can have a week full of safe, fun activities.”

Darnell and Wylie are no strangers to making the Disney World trip come to fruition; this will be their seventh time traveling to Orlando with their students. They’re thrilled that all 15 students are planning to go on next year’s trip, which they explained can be difficult for some of the parents to let their child leave home for five days.

“We are one big family,” Wylie says. “We talk to their families regularly, and we have them 180 days a year, and we definitely have unique parent-teacher relationships.”

The goal for each student upon graduation is simple. “We want each student to be as independent as they can,” Wylie says.

And that independence looks different for each and every student. The pair hopes to help them be proficient in a job, as a volunteer, or even around the house, and the trip to Disney World is an important step in the direction of reaching this ultimate goal.

Those interested in helping to send the SPECIALS to Disney World can contact J.L. Mann High School to buy tickets for the Willy Taco fundraising night, or write a check to J.L. Mann High School and mail to 160 Fairforest Way, Greenville, SC, 29607 with attention to Amy Wylie or Donna Darnell. Donations are also accepted via GoFundMe here

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