Operation Build a Fence: ESU 16, Community Construct Backyard with No Boundaries

Operation Build a Fence: ESU 16, Community Construct Backyard with No Boundaries

By Tyler Dahlgren

Nathan, like many nine-year-olds, isn’t one to spend his summers cooped up inside idling on neutral.

He loves animals and playing under the sun. If given the chance, he’ll run, run, run until his legs give out. And then he’ll run some more. His personality is big, happy, and just plain fun.

“He’s the kind of kid that just sparks a fire when you spend time with him,” said his mom, Crystal.

Nathan, the eldest of three Hessin children, is diagnosed with severe levels of autism and, up until a couple of years ago, he’d been non-verbal. After the COVID-19 pandemic cut the school year two months short, Nathan was in need.

“He went stir-crazy,” said Crystal. “He had a really hard time adjusting to the new normal.”

The Hessins live in Mullen, Nebraska, a community in the Sandhills where most everybody knows everybody. Where being a neighbor really means something and where community is more than just a sense. Nathan receives speech and occupational therapy from Educational Service Unit 16, among other high levels of support.

“He has three paras that work with him on a regular basis,” his mom explained. “Because of the pandemic, his support was dropped almost instantly.”

ESU 16 continued to support Nathan to the best of their ability over Zoom, but there was only so much that could be done through a screen. Nathan’s development was being shoved off course, and the Hessins began to encounter issues.

“He would run away, just out of a lack of understanding,” Crystal said. “Just to find something to do, essentially.”

Not too far away and at nearly the same time, Megan Lantis was determined to answer her own question, one she had posed to herself shortly after a whirlwind tipped the 2019-20 school year upside down.

“What can I do to help?,” the ESU 16 Inclusion Specialist pondered. “What resources can I help put together for those teachers to help support those kids.”

At the base of everything Lantis does on a day-to-day basis are relationships. She works with a purpose to form bonds with the families of each of the students she feels blessed to work with. So it wasn’t a surprise when Nathan Hessin’s mom reached out and asked for help in developing a “social story”, a tool often utilized for exchanging information between professionals and people with autism.

Crystal wanted Nathan to know and understand that the pool was closed. The zoo and the store and the “whole dang world, too.” She was a mother fighting frustration and worry. She didn’t want her son to run away.

“My heart was just breaking for her,” Lantis said of Crystal, a CNA who often works an overnight shift . “I quickly said ‘Absolutely. Yes, I can write a social story.’”

But that wasn’t enough. Lantis thought back to an earlier conversation with Crystal where she talked about a fence and how life-changing those borders could be. Lantis had an idea, and without much hesitation, she began the journey of bringing that idea to life.

“We are going to build them a fence,” she remembers thinking. “I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but we’re going to make it happen.”

Initial research put the cost of materials around $3,000, and this is the point of the story where that incredible community makes its entrance. Families 1st Partnership gladly offered a thousand dollars. Lantis’s husband, a rancher, teamed with the husband (himself a rancher, too) of the ESU 16 speech pathologist who works with Nathan in assembling a fencing crew.

“I reached out to all of our staff and told them the story, and within a week-and-a-half, we had all of the money needed to purchase the materials,” said Lantis. “Another co-worker said ‘I have a swing-set if someone can haul it.’”

The Lions Club in Mullen volunteered for that task, and, in almost no time at all, the “Operation Build a Fence” crew had ballooned to 16.

The team met bright and early on Saturday, June 13, before 8 a.m., and, like people do around here, went to work. When they broke for lunch five hours later, half the pickets were up around the 250-foot fence. Nathan waited inside, his excitement building.

“Basically all of his teachers and everyone who would provide the support for him on a regular non-pandemic basis showed up in our yard to provide a summer’s worth of support,” said Crystal, still in awe. “His occupational therapist showed up with a swing that can support up to 600 pounds so that it can grow with him. It was just tremendous to have such a community of support, not only from the school and the ESU, but from local people showing up in a big, big way.”

When the project was finished, the Hessin’s back-yard playground Utopia, with its swings and slides and a sandbox, too, glistened. It was only missing one thing.

“Of course we had to stay around and get Nathan and the kids on video coming out,” Lantis said, crediting the goodwill of the crew for making a magical day possible. “It is unbelievable the skill set of different people in these communities and these schools. The people of Western Nebraska are amazing and so willing to do whatever it takes to make life a little sweeter or better for kids.”

The fence has changed Nathan’s life.

“His favorite part is simply freedom,” his mom said. “The ability to leave our front door open and let him come and go as he pleases, we’ve never had that before. He’s just ecstatic and has a considerably higher level of contentment now.”

For the first time in his life, Nathan is sleeping through the nights. He plays and runs all day until his energy is on low and then wakes up bright and early in the mornings to do it all over. Through digging in the sand and playing in the water, his sensory needs are being met.

Just the other day, a mother looked outside of her window and saw a little sister pushing her big brother on a swing.

“In the past, if we were to go to a park, we wouldn’t have been there long enough for that activity to engage,” she said. “We’ve seen an overall improvement to everyone’s life.”

Fences are known for what they keep in or keep out, but this one serves a different purpose.

Inside this fence, boundaries fade away and summer days slide by in happy spurts of sun-soaked laughter and memories the Hessins are more than ready to make.

“It’s been absolutely tremendous,” said Crystal.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything better.”