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?

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.

Image from Derek's Online Portfolio

Receiving the Boards and Installation

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

The process didn’t stop at customization. Derek wanted to ensure that the boards were not only delivered to the school but also properly installed to guarantee their long-lasting impact. He sought assistance from his mom’s construction class to dig the necessary holes and set up the posts at Pewaukee Lake Elementary School. Their expertise and guidance ensured that the installation process was done with precision and attention to detail.


At Horizon Elementary, Derek’s parents joined forces with other adults from the school to oversee the installation. Together, they carefully hung the communication boards, making sure they were level, secure, and at the perfect height for easy accessibility. Their collective efforts ensured that the boards were not only visually appealing but also functionally effective.

Through his Online Service Portfolio( , Derek’s passion and determination shine through as he shares the behind-the-scenes details of the installation process. From sealing and protecting the boards with a layer of acrylic to the careful measurement and adjustment of the posts, every step was meticulously executed to ensure the highest quality and durability.

Source: Image from Derek's Portfolio (Shared with permission)

Derek’s Commitment will impact the world!

At Smarty Symbols, we are deeply grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with Derek Walz and his mom on this remarkable project. Their unwavering commitment to making recess more inclusive and enjoyable for all students has left an indelible mark on our team and the Pewaukee Lake Elementary School community.


Derek’s vision and determination to create communication boards that fostered belonging and meaningful play inspired us all. His Online Service Portfolio, documenting the journey from fundraising to installation, serves as a powerful testament to his dedication and passion. 

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to Derek and his mom for choosing Smarty Symbols as their partner in this endeavor. Their trust in our company and the collaborative process we shared were instrumental in bringing this project to life. We are honored to have played a part in providing high-quality custom communication boards that will impact the lives of students at Pewaukee Lake Elementary School for years to come.


The success of this project would not have been possible without the collective effort and support from the entire community. We express our deepest appreciation to the speech and language pathologists, school officials, construction class, and everyone involved in the installation process. Your dedication and commitment to inclusivity have made a lasting difference.


As we reflect on Derek’s journey, we are reminded of the power of empathy, compassion, and the determination to create positive change. Derek’s project serves as an inspiration for other children and adults, showing that no matter how young or small, everyone has the ability to make a significant impact on their community.


Together, we have made a difference and set an example for others to follow. We look forward to witnessing the continued positive impact of the communication boards and to supporting future endeavors that promote inclusivity and belonging.

Thank you, Derek and Cathy, for reminding us all of the incredible power we hold to make the world a better place.