Empowering Voices: How One Child’s Mission Transformed Recess for Non-Verbal Students

Discover the inspiring story of Derek Walz and his mission to create an inclusive playground environment with communication boards.

Meet Derek:

In a small town in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, a remarkable young boy named Derek Walz embarked on a journey that would change the lives of his fellow students. It all began when Derek, just 8 years old at the time, noticed a classmate with a disability who struggled to communicate and participate during recess. This observation tugged at Derek’s compassionate heart, igniting a spark within him to make a difference and create a more inclusive playground environment.

Derek’s determination to take action was unwavering. He shared his idea with his mother, Cathy, and together they brainstormed ways to make recess a fun and accessible experience for all students, regardless of their verbal abilities. They discovered the concept of communication boards, a tool that would enable non-verbal students to express their play preferences and interact with their peers in a meaningful way.


What are communication boards?

Pewaukee Lake Elementary School Communication Board

Communication boards are powerful tools that have the ability to make a significant impact on the lives of children. Designed to assist individuals with communication, these boards provide a visual means for expressing wants, needs, and ideas. While they are often associated with non-speaking individuals, their benefits extend far beyond this specific group.

Communication boards can benefit every child, helping them develop language and vocabulary skills. By using visual symbols, these boards offer a tangible way for children to communicate, learn and understand new words. They provide a bridge between thoughts and expression, promoting communication and engagement in various social and educational settings.

Communication boards offer significant benefits in playgrounds and other public spaces by promoting inclusivity and enhancing communication for individuals with diverse needs. In a playground setting, these boards serve as a bridge between non-verbal or limited verbal communication and meaningful engagement with peers.


Making his vision a reality

With his vision in mind, Derek dove headfirst into fundraising efforts. He approached family, friends, and even strangers, sharing his mission and gathering support. Through his infectious enthusiasm and unwavering belief in his cause, Derek managed to raise an impressive $5,000, surpassing his initial goal. The overwhelming response from the community demonstrated the power of one young boy’s determination to make a difference.


Taking the first steps: Researching Companies and Selecting Smarty Symbols

To ensure the success of his project, Derek sought guidance from the speech and language pathologists at Pewaukee Lake Elementary School and Horizon Elementary School. Together, they meticulously selected the most suitable communication boards, considering factors like height and design. Derek’s collaboration with the experts showcased his commitment to making informed decisions that would truly benefit his peers.

The next step in Derek’s journey was to rally the support of his community. He shared his proposal with school officials, who recognized the importance of his mission and wholeheartedly embraced his initiative. Derek’s infectious enthusiasm spread, captivating the hearts of parents, teachers, and fellow students. Everyone was inspired by his determination and the positive impact his project could have on the lives of non-verbal students.

Customizing the Boards for the Community

Derek and Cathy collaborated with Smarty Symbols speech-language pathologist, Remi Salami, to customize the communication boards to perfectly suit the needs and preferences of their school community. They carefully selected colors, added school logos, and colors that would resonate with the students and create a visually appealing and customized experience. Through this customization process, the boards came to life, representing the spirit and identity of Pewaukee Lake Elementary School.

Smarty Symbols’ commitment to quality and attention to detail ensured that the boards were not just functional, but visually appealing as well. Their expertise in symbol design and layout allowed for clear and intuitive communication, enabling non-verbal students to express themselves and actively participate in the joy of recess.

By partnering with Smarty Symbols, Derek was able to bring his vision to life, transforming the playground into an inclusive and empowering space for all students. The collaborative process and personalized approach demonstrated by Smarty Symbols exemplify their dedication to creating customized communication tools that make a meaningful impact on the lives of individuals with special needs.

Each of the three communication boards were designed specifically for each playground.

Ordering the Boards
Image from Derek's Online Portfolio

Receiving the Boards and Installation

After months of planning, fundraising, and collaborating with Smarty Symbols, the eagerly awaited moment arrived when the custom communication boards were delivered to Pewaukee Lake Elementary School.

The process didn’t stop at customization. Eager to ensure a lasting impact, Derek made sure the boards were not only delivered but also properly installed. He enlisted help from his mom’s construction class to dig the necessary holes and set up the posts with precision and attention to detail.

Meanwhile, at Horizon Elementary, Derek’s parents teamed up with other adults to oversee the installation. Together, they meticulously hung the communication boards, ensuring they were level, secure, and at the optimal height for easy accessibility.

Furthermore, through his Online Service Portfolio (https://sites.google.com/pewaukeeschools.org/derekwalz/project-planning/product-installation), Derek’s passion and dedication are evident as he shares the intricate details of the installation process. From sealing and protecting the boards with a layer of acrylic to precisely measuring and adjusting the posts, each step was carefully executed to guarantee the highest quality and durability.

This revised version adds transition words such as “Meanwhile,” “Furthermore,” and “Eager” to improve the flow and coherence of the text. It also shortens longer sentences to make the content more concise and easier to read.

Smarty Symbols Communication Boards Installation
Source: Image from Derek's Portfolio (Shared with permission)

Derek’s Commitment will impact the world!

Gratitude and Reflection: A Successful Collaboration

A Partnership for Inclusive Play

At Smarty Symbols, we are deeply grateful to have collaborated with Derek Walz and his mom on a transformative project. Their steadfast dedication to enhancing recess for all students has profoundly impacted our team and the Pewaukee Lake Elementary School community.

Derek’s Inspiring Journey

Derek’s commitment to creating communication boards that promote belonging and meaningful play has inspired us all. His Online Service Portfolio, which documents his journey from fundraising to installation, stands as a testament to his passion and dedication.

Expressing Our Appreciation

We extend our heartfelt thanks to Derek and his mom for choosing Smarty Symbols as their partner. Their trust and collaboration were crucial in bringing this project to life. We are proud to have contributed high-quality custom communication boards that will benefit the students at Pewaukee Lake Elementary School for many years.

Community Effort and Lasting Impact

Acknowledging Collective Contributions

The project’s success would not have been possible without the collective effort and support from the entire community. We deeply appreciate the involvement of speech and language pathologists, school officials, the construction class, and everyone else who played a part in the installation process. Your commitment to inclusivity has made a significant difference.

Inspiration for Future Projects

Reflecting on Derek’s journey, we are reminded of the power of empathy, compassion, and determination in fostering positive change. Derek’s efforts serve as a beacon of inspiration for both children and adults, proving that no matter one’s age or size, everyone can significantly impact their community.

Looking Forward

Together, we have set a precedent for others to emulate. We eagerly anticipate the continued positive effects of the communication boards and are excited to support future projects that promote inclusivity and belonging.

A Heartfelt Thanks

Thank you, Derek and Cathy, for reminding us of the incredible power we have to improve the world. Your initiative is a powerful reminder of what we can achieve together.

Custom learning resources software

Create your custom visual support materials with easy drag and drop tools and contemporary images that the kids will love.

Smarty Symbols Studio is a tress-free resource creation platform that saves time and frustration Fall in love with creating new custom resources for kids that are engaging and effective.