In a county perhaps best known for race cars circling in seemingly infinite loops, Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB) students are speeding toward limitless opportunities studying the world’s most basic field of work — agriculture.
Thanks to an anonymous $1 million donation, AIDB is building the Joe Tom Armbrester Agriculture Center in Talladega to expand agriscience studies and teach students independence. The center is set to open in August.
“AIDB prides itself on its diversity, not just of our people, but in our programs,” said AIDB President John Mascia. “Those with sensory loss need hands-on training. Ag allows our kids to experience something they haven’t thought they could be successful at.”
Named in memory of Armbrester, a local farmer whose wife Jan taught art at AIDB, the center will serve the institute’s five Talladega campuses, including the Alabama School for the Deaf (ASD), Alabama School for the Blind (ASB) and Helen Keller School (HKS), plus Alabama Industries for the Blind and E.H. Gentry, an adult learning facility.
At HKS, agriscience teacher Rachel Chastain’s flair for creativity (using an old Pack ‘n Play to brood chickens) and resourcefulness (an Ag in the Classroom mini-grant funded a chicken tractor) is a godsend for her students, who have multiple disabilities.
“Our program has been great for students who love to get their hands dirty. We have a class rabbit they learn to care for, and we incubate eggs and care for chicks,” said Chastain, a Talladega County Farmers Federation member. “A typical special needs classroom may offer Play-Doh to help build hand strength. I use a variety of water spray and squeeze bottles to water plants.”
In 2016, Chastain mentioned expanding her agriscience program to Dennis Gilliam, then-interim HKS principal, who encouraged her to be limitless like her students.
Chastain dreamed big and proposed a state-of-the-art ag center to serve AIDB and the community.
The donor’s gift lays the groundwork for the center’s first phase, including a barn-like classroom, kitchen, orchards and raised beds accessible to all students.
Making the center accessible greatly increases cost, said Patti Anne Chastain, AIDB assistant director of foundation giving programs. Continued financial support will come from the AIDB Foundation.
“We need to raise more funds for equipment and so the center will be sustained in the future,” she said, noting that more expensive concrete paths will be poured instead of gravel walkways to accommodate those in wheelchairs.
Chastain and fellow agriscience teachers, Leslie Wright at ASB and Jim Hall at ASD, have endless expansions in mind, from hydroponics and bees to a pond and farmers market.
Though they focus on various aspects of agriscience education — Wright with greenhouses, Hall with woodworking, hunter safety and plant sales — their goal is the same: promote independence and connect students to food production and the world around them.
It’s Mascia’s goal, too.
“This is important work,” he said. “A farmer is being honored because of the way he lived his life and served his community. That’s a very important message for our students.”