Amy Howell became a teacher to influence the lives of others. She hardly expected her students to change hers.
A group of her high school students spent six weeks renovating a dilapidated school bus, turning it into an amazing playhouse for Howell’s 12-year-old daughter, Gabrielle.
With the help of a tow company, a semitruck pulled the bus onto Howell’s open property in Westmoreland, Tennessee, on Christmas Eve. Santa was waiting inside to personally deliver the only gift Gabrielle had asked for last year.
“A huge tow truck parked it where we’re going to have it forever, and she’s been in it every single day since Dec. 24, teaching her ‘children’ in it,” Howell told TODAY.
It started when Howell, who teaches health care, told one of her classes about her daughter’s unusual wish list.
Gabrielle has a rare brain disorder, bilateral periventricular nodular heterotopia (PVNH), which prevents her brain from developing like most children.
“Some of her neurons got clumped up in the middle of her brain, so information has to take an alternate route to get to the other side,” she said. “Sometimes she just doesn’t get things, and she’s stuck mentally at 3 years old.”
Howell, who’s been told only one in a million people have the disorder, said she’s never met or heard of anyone in the country who also has it.
She regularly shares stories with her class about Gabrielle, who often visits the classroom and plays with many of the students.
In Christmases past, Howell said her daughter has asked for a wheelchair, like the ones she has seen so many of her special-needs classmates use. Last year, she asked for an ambulance — and got a toy one. Gabrielle recently became obsessed with school buses ever since riding one for the first time. Howell said her daughter often pretends to drive one after buckling her dolls into their seats, a story she has shared with her students.
“She was telling us one day about how Gabby always asks for the craziest things,” said 17-year-old senior Jessi Smith, who has had Howell as a teacher every year but one. “This year, she asked for a school bus. And Mrs. Howell kind of joked, ‘Do you know anybody who’s got an old bus or van?’
But Smith gave it more thought and soon found someone who had an old bus to give away for free. With the help of a GoFundMe page, Smith had the truck towed to the football stadium parking lot at Gallatin High School, where she organized a group of students to work on it nearly every day.
The group cleaned out the debris inside. They replaced the rotted wheels with new ones supplied by a local tire company, one of numerous businesses that donated to the project. An auto detailing company contributed the paint job that turned the formerly blue vehicle into school bus yellow.
The bus now has four newly upholstered bus benches in the front and thickly padded carpeting in the back, along with bean bag chairs, a whiteboard and various art supplies so Gabrielle can play school with her dolls.
"It's amazing that the kids would put that much time into this on their own," Howell said of the students.
She especially singled out Smith, who has "a heart of gold" and already has mailed out thank you cards to volunteers and donors.
Smith said she was happy to help out a beloved teacher, especially if she could provide her with something to make it easier for her to take care of Gabrielle.
"She really goes above and beyond every single day for her students. She stays after hours, she works through her lunch," she said.
Plus, Smith added, everyone loves Gabrielle.
"She’s so sweet and wants to give everybody hugs. She’s just friends with everybody," she said.
Howell said she hopes attention to her story will raise awareness that not all people with special needs look different.
"Sometimes, we get people saying, 'Well, she looks like nothing wrong with her,' and our response is always, 'Well, what does depression look like? What does diabetes look like?'" she said.
"Sometimes there are things going on that you can’t see on the outside. I hope this helps get the word out that there are a lot of special people out there that just want you to love them and not judge them."