Staff Photo: Frank Reddy Kristie Chamlee designed the mural outside a reading room at Riverside Elementary, which is dedicated to the Late Brandon Woyce: a student with special needs who passed away about one year ago.
SUWANEE -- A freshly-painted mural adorns the wall between the special education department and the media center at Riverside Elementary School.
The brush strokes of a local artist brought to life a dozen dog-eared children's books, a soft blanket dangling from the shelf and a stuffed animal in a wheelchair named "Brandon Bear."
Between the pastel depictions of childhood artifacts, an actual door opens to reveal a room with a striped, multicolor rug and real wooden bookshelves. Inside the space, the principal, three students and a teacher look around, admiring the area. A woman wearing a purple shirt wipes away a tear, but she smiles.
This is Brandon's Room.
Eight-year-old Brandon Woyce passed away on Oct. 2, 2011, after medical complications. A student with special needs who struggled with health issues, Woyce had difficulty speaking. But Riverside Elementary teacher Nancy Dick said the bright-eyed boy had little trouble conveying emotions.
"He didn't talk, but boy did he smile," Dick said. "I'd wait for him in the morning when he was getting off the bus, and that look on his face just made my day. He liked to share that smile with everybody he met."
It's that spirit of sharing that Principal Craig Barlow hopes to continue through use of the reading room.
"His family was very kind about setting up a memorial fund for the school," Barlow said. "We thought this room would be a great way to remember Brandon, a great way to remember his contribution to this school."
Barlow said he hopes Brandon's Room will provide an inviting environment for all students to relax with a good book or share a friendly conversation. The furniture is bare now, but he said there will soon be hundreds of tomes filling the bookshelves, including many books that cater to students with special needs.
"We're going to use part of the money from the family's fund to buy books ... a lot of children with special needs like books that involve touch and sound, so a lot of what we'll buy will be touch-sensitive and books with audio."
Added Barlow: "It's our hope that children like Brandon will feel comfortable here."
To design a room that honored Brandon, who died just shy of his ninth birthday, Barlow enlisted the help of boys his age.
Faxon Childress, 10, Ethan Dawidowicz, 11 and Parker Everson, 11, served as "architects," designing the room's interior. They picked out the big, plush chairs, a rainbow-striped rug and the maroon color on the walls.
When planning what would go inside the space, Childress said they aimed to "give the room color ... something that would make you happy."
The bookshelves in the room came from Lamon Luther, a business that employs homeless men to build furniture. Business owner Brian Preston said the shelves were designed and constructed after talks with those who knew young Woyce.
"We wanted to build furniture that conveyed the feelings of purity, of kindness, happiness and safety," Preston said.
Barlow said the bookshelves, the rug, the chairs and the mural outside the door all seemed to come together like clockwork. "It's one of those things that felt meant to be," he said.
Brandon's mom, Debra Woyce, stood outside the room Monday morning. With a sleeve of her purple shirt, she wiped away the tears that welled in her eyes.
"He was my son, but he brightened the lives of others too," Debra said, eyes moving across the mural.
When Artist Kristie Chamlee set out to paint the wall artwork she hoped to "make something that would remind people of Brandon."
Chamlee accomplished that goal, Debra Woyce said.
"This captures the spirit of who Brandon was," Debra said. "It's beautiful."