Spencer's Place a loving tribute

Spencer Avery Sapp could neither talk nor walk. He needed help most of the time. Still, he came to Greenville Elementary School to learn.

Through smiles and cries, though, with inspiring perseverance, Spencer mostly taught. His special needs offered special lessons. "He taught us a lot more than we taught him," said Tim French, a special-education teacher.

Deeply grateful, the school has added a spectacular $80,000 playground on which Spencer would have had a ball. Floyd County has nowhere else so suitable for kids with disabilities. It's called Spencer's Place.

"The whole school's really excited," said Hunter Mattingly, a former classmate of Spencer.

Spencer's death in late 2007 at age 9 while he slept was as much a surprise as his life was a struggle.

He was born in Louisville with cerebral palsy, and a jury agreed with the Sapp family's claim of negligence against the hospital. A doctor also settled with the family over the case.

Judy and Doug Sapp built an accessible home in Greenville. They bought a van, arranged painstakingly for the best-possible care and treatment for Spencer, one of four children. And the family shook off any suggestions it was now on easy street, no matter how hard Spencer had it. "No amount of money would have made our life easy," Judy Sapp said.

While her family lived in Jeffersonville, Judy Sapp pushed hard for the city to live up to federal accessibility requirements. Relocated to Greenville, the Sapps insisted Spencer attend the nearby school though it was unaccustomed to accommodating children with severe problems.

"It was all new to us," said Donna Emly, Spencer's third-grade teacher.

With the family's involvement, the school adapted for Spencer and students came to realize Spencer was just like everyone else on the inside. "He would get mad if nobody played with him," classmate Gage Griffin said.

The kids not only befriended the red-headed Spencer but also watched over him. "That has carried over to our other special-needs kids," said Harlan Uhl, the principal. 'They (students who aren't disabled) are little mother hens."

Teachers overlooked any day-to-day hassles to spot and accentuate Spencer's unique gifts.

"Those people weren't just educators," Judy Sapp said. "They loved my son."

A few people assumed his death was a blessing.

"How is he better off?" his mother counters. "He was so happy."

 

Students released butterflies at a memorial and planted a tree in salute. Emly predicts they always will remember Spencer. All cope with the big loss of a little boy.

 

"Joy is not true joy like it was before," Judy Sapp said.

The family has passed on equipment on which Spencer relied, and Judy Sapp is an advocate for others with disabilities. But life continues to throw the family distressing curves. Judy Sapp also helps care for her seriously ill mother, and Doug Sapp was laid off in January from his longtime job at a manufacturer.

The family was a major donor for a playground that is bright blue to reflect Spencer's obsession with the TV show "Blue's Clues." Lots of others also contributed, including many at the school.

"It's a total community project," said Uhl, who was waiting for walkways to be poured on the day I visited.

A dedication ceremony will be held soon, and the playground will be open to the public whenever school is closed.