At first, Winston Eiland was anxious and afraid when he was hospitalized at the University of South Alabama Children’s & Women’s Hospital during his 2014 bout with Kawasaki disease. But the Mobile third-grader was able to stay positive and focused with the help of teachers in the hospital’s Class Act program.

A collaborative effort between the Children’s & Women’s Hospital and the Mobile County Public School System, Class Act helps school children continue their education during periods of hospitalization. The program’s teachers provide daily instruction for children from kindergarten through 12th grade to students in 175 school districts across the Gulf Coast.

Winston, a third-grade student at Council Traditional School, spent eight days in the hospital in 2014 following his diagnosis. Kawasaki disease, if left untreated, can cause arteries to become inflamed, disrupting blood flow to the heart. He is one of approximately 20,000 children who have been served by the teachers at Class Act since the program was founded in 1990.

“I was pretty scared, going to the hospital seemed kind of dangerous and scary,” Winston said. “I got anxious at times, but the teachers kept me busy and helped me take my mind off it. I had a great time and really liked the classroom.”

Winston’s mother, Rene, said the Class Act program makes the best out of a potentially difficult situation for sick children and their parents.

“We had a great experience,” she said. “It was very nice, as a parent, to be able to relax for a little while during class time. It gave me time to take a breath, knowing he was in good hands with some great teachers. Some days he felt terrible, but it was as good an experience as you can have with a sick child at the hospital.”

Winston said his favorite memory of Class Act is the program’s reward system, the “Champion Chain,” which allows students to collect paper chain links for finishing schoolwork and exhibiting bravery in the face of often painful medical procedures.

When students collect enough chain links, they pick out a toy from a large selection of donated toys from Disney, Mattel and a handful of local sources.

When Winston collected enough chain links, he selected a box of Nerf sports balls.

“If you did all your schoolwork, you could go pick out a toy,” he said. “I really liked that.”

Laura Searcy’s daughter, Carleigh, spent the majority of her fifth-grade year in and out of the hospital for recurrent pancreatitis. Searcy said she knew about Class Act because she’d volunteered to read Dr. Seuss books to hospitalized children two years prior to Carleigh’s admittance at USACW, but having her own child there opened her eyes to the program’s benefits.

Even though Carleigh missed most of her fifth-grade year, she was not counted absent from school because she was enrolled in the Class Act program. Searcy said the program helped to ease her daughter’s anxiety about missing school and the pain she was experiencing.

Searcy said Carleigh would have had to repeat the year in school without the Class Act program and its teachers.

“Her anxiety level was very high, and at times she was worried she was dying,” Searcy said. “We could not figure out why the pancreatitis kept coming back, and missing so much school was very hard for her. Class Act helped reduce her anxiety because she didn’t have to worry about falling behind in school.”

Searcy said Carleigh, like Winston, loved the paper-chain reward system. Children in the program carry their paper chains around like badges of honor hanging from their IVs.

“It is positive reinforcement,” she said. “In Class Act, sick kids get to step away from their problems for a while. They are rewarded for working hard and being brave.”

Teachers select a student of the week who gets their picture displayed on a board in the classroom. Searcy said one of Carleigh’s favorite memories was being selected herself.

“She was having a really rough week and it really helped her take her mind off of it. When we were finally discharged for the last time, they sent us the photo.”

As a mother, Eiland said it was comforting to know when she needed to leave the hospital to take care of life’s chores, she was leaving Winston in good hands.

“They make the best out of a situation that could be bad for the kids,” Eiland said. “The teachers and everyone involved are just so nice.”

Even though she said she rarely left her daughter’s side, Searcy agreed, saying it was easy to trust the Class Act teachers to take care of Carleigh the few times she left the hospital.

“I knew she was in a good place,” Searcy said. “It was a tremendous comfort.”

One of the program’s founders, Anne Vella, said the goal of Class Act is to make sure the life of the hospitalized child is as normal as possible. Students do their daily classwork, participate in arts and crafts projects, and sometimes even take physical education on a Nintendo Wii. They participate in holiday parties and make Mother’s and Father’s Day cards and Christmas ornaments.

“A child in the hospital wants something for their parents to put on the refrigerator too,” Vella said. “We make sure they have Christmas ornaments and things to take home to their parents, just like they would if they were at their school.”

In addition to four teachers and a teacher’s assistant, Class Act utilizes a host of volunteers from Spring Hill College, University of South Alabama pre-med and nursing students and other adult volunteers who help tutor children. Class Act teachers pair volunteers with children who share similar interests, and college-age volunteers can in turn use the experience working with the children for their applications and resumes. Adult volunteers tutor children, assist with arts and crafts projects, play video games and spend time with kids.

Since 1990 the program has grown from just one teacher conducting class in a hallway to a staff of five education professionals serving a daily average of 30 students in three classrooms. One classroom is a dedicated “Teen Lounge” for older students.

Vella, a former teacher at Westlawn Elementary, worked with hospitalized children in college. When she attended Auburn to pursue her doctorate, she realized there were no hospital schools in Mobile. Researching the subject further, Vella discovered hospital schools benefit children, their parents, their school and the doctors and nurses who serve them.

“It is a win for the child because we keep them from falling behind in school, and they don’t have to return unprepared,” Vella said. “It gives the kids a purpose, to finish their goal, which distracts them from their pain and their fear. Parents can trust us to take care of their kids for a little bit, so they can take a break. It is beneficial for the schools because they don’t have to scrounge around for make-up work when the children return. And it helps our doctors and nurses because the children can tolerate pain twice as long if they are distracted.”

Vella said the paper-chain reward system is important because it not only encourages children to work hard in the classroom, it also gives them a memory they can look back on when they are afraid later in life.

“We tell them to save the toy they got for their bravery links so they can remind themselves how brave they were while they were here,” Vella said. “We want them to remember the time they were afraid and had to be brave.”

“Our rule is ‘work hard and be nice to people,’” Vella said. “People ask us if we have discipline problems and we always tell them, ‘no.’ The kids want to be here in the classroom. When people want to be in your class, it is not that hard to keep them behaving.”

The classroom is decorated with vibrant colors and arts and crafts projects adorn the walls. Vella said arts activities are important parts of a child’s development, which is why the teachers make sure students make Christmas ornaments and use their creative side to make arts and crafts projects to take with them when they are discharged from the hospital.

Mary Day Lantaff was a special-education teacher in her pre-Class Act life. She taught students with disabilities in a handful of states and at Williamson High School and worked for the Mobile County Public School System’s homebound education program.  

Lantaff, who teaches students in grades five through eight, said she was hesitant to leave the homebound program at first but found her true calling at Class Act. For Lantaff, the best part of the job is seeing young people persevere through difficulties and thrive in life when they leave the hospital.

“I had a senior who spent the entire senior year in the [Pediatric Intensive Care Unit] and couldn’t walk, and we did schoolwork together every day she was here,” Lantaff said. “She left the hospital a few days before graduation and she was able to walk and get her diploma. She wouldn’t have graduated if it wasn’t for this school.”

While she was in college, Class Act special education teacher Kristin Bearden worked at Camp Smile during the summer — a camp in West Mobile for children and adults with disabilities. Her time spent helping people at the camp led her to change her major to special education. Her first job in education was at Murphy High School.

She later worked as a homebound teacher for MCPSS and came into contact with the Class Act program when one of her students was hospitalized. When Vella asked her to come on board, she was happy to do it. Bearden is the program’s special-education teacher and also serves preschool children.

Bearden said the teachers promote a culture of fun that has spread to other parts of the hospital.

“We try to help the kids see into the future and understand that this time next year, this experience will just be a memory,” Bearden said. “I think we have helped the nurses and the doctors to see how much fun the job can be, too. We’ve had to get onto some of the nurses who want to spend too much time playing with Nerf guns with kids in the hallways. It is great to see nurses who do chemo with the patients also interacting and having fun with them.”

Bearden said often parents are surprised to know the hospital has teachers on staff who understand and interact with their children, who sometimes have disabilities and long-term illnesses that have hampered their social progress in everyday life.

“We want the kids to think ‘I am somebody and people have not forgotten about me,’” Bearden said. “Children sometimes think that if they have a teacher who cares about them, that makes them important.”

Class Act high school teacher Jana Valdez said the best thing about her job is interacting with high schoolers who need someone to talk to. While she helps the students stay on track with school work, she also gets to listen to them when they share their problems and their fears.

“I love the one-on-one contact and the different challenges that come up,” Valdez said. “Sometimes kids just need someone who can be a sounding board they may not have found at school. Some of the kids come here with social challenges like suicide attempts or teen pregnancies, and I enjoy trying to counsel them and show them there is life outside of this. This is just a temporary stop in their life.”

The teachers said teaching assistant Diane Presswood, a former Mae Eanes Elementary employee, makes the program move smoothly. If parents or children are apprehensive about enrolling in Class Act, Presswood is the one who seals the deal.

Presswood assists the Class Act teachers and students with whatever they may need. She takes the daily schedule to the students and parents to let them know what they can do that day, and she enrolls new students into the program.

Along with her official duties, Presswood said her first priority is to make sure it is “like Christmas Day” everyday for the children.

“I give them a lot of love,” Presswood said. “Sometimes a hug means so much more to them than anything else.”

Still, the Class Act program provides more than just hugs for hospitalized children.

At Christmas, the teachers make sure Santa Claus stops at the hospital first before he makes his annual trek around the globe. While most of the children are discharged at Christmas time, a few students are unable to leave.

“The children are worried about whether Santa Claus will come, and we make sure he brings a big bag of presents for them before he does anything else,” Vella said. “Santa comes here first.”

Vella also said children who remain at the hospital over the holidays make gifts for their parents. She said one current patient has saved up enough paper chain links to buy Christmas gifts for his siblings and parents. Any Christmas presents that aren’t taken are used for other events during the year.

“Because people are very generous, we usually get more than we can use,” Vella said.

Class Act has its own Mardi Gras parading society, the Mystic Order of Masked Miracles, where the children build and ride floats out of wagons to parade around the hospital. Toomey’s Mardi Gras donates throws.

At Halloween, students trick-or-treat in different departments of the hospital decorated like haunted houses and spooky places.

In the summer, the Class Act Explorer Program has a pirate theme. Students “travel around the world” to different nurses stations, where employees from each department dress up like citizens from different countries.

“Those are the kinds of memories you remember from you were a kid in school and we make sure our kids don’t miss out on them,” Vella said. “When you ask the kids what it was like to be in the hospital, we want them to say it was fun. We want them to remember it as a happy time.”