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Tactile sensory wall making a difference for school kids

"You don’t have to fix the world. You can fix the space you exist in, or at least assist to make it better," said Billy Weathers, founder of the B. Well Foundation.

DES MOINES, Iowa — In a time when child psychologists say kids' mental health is more vulnerable than ever, local artists are collaborating with King Elementary and partnering with big corporations to give kids at the school a place of peace and artistic inspiration. 

Together, they have created a tactile sensory mural wall in a room for students to calm their minds.

Billy Weathers, the founder of the B. Well Foundation, is behind many projects elevating art and youth empowerment in Iowa communities.

“If this can be the project that opens everyone’s eyes to seeing what’s a possibility for youth and what’s been missing, that’s inspiring to me and everyone involved,” Weathers said.

The mural's location is far from new to Weathers. 

“My grandmother grew up right across the street near Evelyn K. Davis Park, so I passed this almost every day as I was coming to her house," he said. "Before I moved to Vegas, and before she passed, she lived there for a majority of my life. My dad actually went to elementary school here.”  

Seeing this mural come together surpassed Weathers expectations.

“I don’t even think I was registering all those things when we chose King to be it, but to have that be a full circle moment kind of surprises you," Weathers said.

Teachers see the need for this wall every day.

Aneesah Shabazz is a special education associate teacher at the school and uses the space frequently. 

“When our children are overwhelmed and unable to communicate with us, this is the place we bring them so they’re able to calm down and kind of get away from the hustle and bustle of the loudness of the classroom. And so this is their area," Shabazz said.

That’s the collective heart behind the installment at King Elementary, a Title I school in Des Moines.

Indigo Moore, an artist part of the design, has felt the tranquil effect of this mural, too. 

“I believe kids need space to feel calmness, and peace of mind. This world is chaotic and maybe their homes are chaotic as well and as an artist, as someone who dealt with depression and anxiety growing up and never having a space, bringing this space into school is I think Important," Moore said. "[It] could bring a lot of meaning to their lives.”


“Being able to focus the mind, learning new experiences, touch, just it can all come together even if they’re not into it now, they’ll take it into their adulthood and hopefully apply it," Moore added. 

The artists also want parents to have the chance to decompress in this room.

“This isn’t just for kids, this is for adults too,” Moore said. “And for them to also start to be in touch and in calmness in life, throughout the chaos they experience, is therapeutic.”  

As a tactile sensory mural, it’s inclusive to many abilities.

Artist Jill Wells explained the unique dimensions. 

“There’s a 3D plaque that is a rendition of the mural. It’s 3D printed, so everything is raised so when you’re touching the leaves, you can identify this is a leaf and then the braille description identifies that this is what the mural is, it’s a green space," Wells said. "There’s different flowers. There’s butterflies, there’s birds, so it’s that inclusive element of having the sensory perception through touch of a visual piece of work.” 

This mural gives space for people navigating a variety of disabilities.

“At first glance, it’s a little bit of an optical illusion. You think it’s painted, but it’s actually a 3D element, so it increases the engagement [so] that you’re going to spend more time with the piece rather than a few seconds,” Wells said.  

Elements within the mural also point to circumstances that might not be visible, including mental health, invisible disabilities and more. 

Wells added that the mural is giving space for underrepresented artists to show kids opportunities are growing.

“It’s very empowering to be a female artist of color in the community and be able to be a symbol of representation is something I seek to do within my own practice, so the questions that come up along the way seem to support that that’s kind of needed," she said.

Wells said this art is something every school should have for wellness. 

“I think it’s important for all communities to look at self care and look at art as a therapeutic tool ... Oftentimes, I think it’s very present in elementary education and then often when you age up that shifts a little bit, but there's definitely a career in the arts getting mentors – [I] think it starts with programs like this in our education system," she said. 

Everyone involved hopes this mural will be a start to more beautiful projects.

“I’m hoping youth will be the next generation of multi-sensory artists and pick up the torch after we decide, one day, we want to retire,” Wells said.

As King Elementary celebrates its 50th anniversary, school leaders see this room as a changemaker. 

Cory Heaberlin, the school's associate principal, uses the room often.

“Every time I walk through here I think I see a new window and it does kind of take your mind off of what’s going on and think about something else for a change," Heaberlin said.   

There is a cost of $20,000 for the mural's creation and installation. Advocates for the sensory mural hope that schools and donors will value that investment as much as any other educational or developmental spending.

That $20,000 grant came from Greenstate Credit Union. Weathers sees this mural as a catalyst.

“My biggest hope is that whoever’s watching this, whether it’s educators, parents, or kids, ask for this to be in their schools – and we figure out how to do it," Weathers said. 

Above all, he said he hopes it inspires other corporations to continue investing their money into projects like this.

"Noticing that you can make change within the life that you lead I think is what I try to embody, and also convey – you don’t have to fix the world. You can fix the space you exist in, or at least assist to make it better," he said. 

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