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Outdoor class ‘designed by God’

KAITLIN MULLINS / Above, the family of LaRue Byrd stand with the wooden cougar they sponsored in his memory. Pictured are (Front row, from left) Bruce Clanton, Linda Derrick, David Derrick, Betty Byrd, Sherry Powell, Missy Clanton; (back row) Ken Powell, Taylor Byrd, Jerry Byrd and Stacy Clanton.

KAITLIN MULLINS / The family of LaRue Byrd stand with the wooden cougar they sponsored in his memory. Pictured are (Front row, from left) Bruce Clanton, Linda Derrick, David Derrick, Betty Byrd, Sherry Powell, Missy Clanton; (back row) Ken Powell, Taylor Byrd, Jerry Byrd and Stacy Clanton.

“I don’t think any of us ever imagined it would be this incredible.”

Brian Emory, development/advancement coordinator for Brookhaven Academy, summed up the opinion held by many during the announcement of the school’s new outdoor environmental classroom on Wednesday. Unveiling the completed outdoor classroom on Earth Day was just one part of this significant occasion, which came together in such a way that BA Head of School Julie Wright said “it was all designed by God.”

God had a little help from Warren Stamps of Rainbow Construction, also a BA graduate, who said he came up with the design for the outdoor classroom after praying over the site.

BA students inspect the pond in the new outdoor classroom.

BA students inspect the pond in the new outdoor classroom.

“I came out here on a Sunday afternoon, and I prayed over the property and asked God to show me what [he] might see here,” Stamps said.

BA science teachers Leslie Hood and Dianne Watson came up with the idea and began pursuing grants to fund it in January 2014. Wright said Hood, Watson and Stamps spearheaded the project and after countless volunteer hours and summer workdays, the outdoor classroom was ready when school started last fall.

Wright and Emory said classes in K3 up through 12th grade have used the space for creative writing, study halls and science experiments, and any class can use the space.

A butterfly rests on a tree near the outdoor classroom after being released by the senior class during the announcement ceremony

A butterfly rests on a tree near the outdoor classroom after being released by the senior class during the announcement ceremony

“It’s relaxing, and [students] can be creative out here,” Wright said. “It’s just different than sitting within the four walls.”

The outdoor classroom has a pavilion, several bridges, a butterfly garden, a fountain emptying into a small pond and lots of natural stone creating a “dry creek,” which Stamps said eliminated the drainage problem the area had previously. The dry creek, pond area, paths and seating around the pavilion are natural stone Stamps imported from Arkansas.

During the announcement Wednesday, the crowning jewel of the outdoor classroom was unveiled: a hand-carved wooden cougar, poised on a large piece of petrified wood. The wooden cougar was sponsored by the family of LaRue Byrd, a BA graduate, who died last summer from cancer. The piece of petrified wood was moved from another part of campus to the outdoor classroom. Stacy Clanton, Byrd’s sister and also former BA teacher, told the story of how the petrified wood and wooden cougar came together.

“In Warren’s design, he had planned for this wooden cougar, and the school just didn’t have the money for it,” Clanton said. “They had this petrified log that had been at the school forever … and one of our previous administrators and teachers David Derrick had actually taken a field trip with some of his class from [sometime around 1975] and dug up this petrified log.”

“My brother LaRue was one of his students who helped dig it up,” Clanton continued. “We called the school to see what we could do in memory of my brother …  they said ‘We have the perfect thing, would you like to do this wooden cougar to go on this petrified log?’ And we just thought that was the most awesome thing that my brother actually helped dig and bring the log to BA.” The outdoor environmental classroom was funded by grants as well as many alumni, friends and businesses who sponsored the different trees in the area in memory or dedication of someone.

One such tree was dedicated by the family of Russ Michael Mangold, who passed away during his K5 year. Russ would have graduated with this year’s senior class, who decided to incorporate the release of butterflies and balloons in memory of their classmate. A yellow butterfly hung around during services for Russ, and has become a significant symbol of Russ to the Mangold family and the class who never forgot him.