Kenny Oaks, who has cerebral palsy, is shown with classmates Makayla McKracken, Julia Light, Evan Light, Matt Mowell and Dakota McClain. Photo by David Grace.
KINGSPORT — Over the past four years, Sullivan South High School senior Kenny Oaks has become close friends with the students of automotive technology instructor Darrell Johnson.
Oaks, who has cerebral palsy and must use a posterior walker or wheelchair to get around, recently visited Ruby Falls, Rock City and a go kart track in Chattanooga with help from his career technical education friends.
The group did not win or place in any of the Skills USA statewide events in Chattanooga, but Johnson said he couldn’t be prouder of the seven students.
“You could hear Kenny laughing from one end of that cavern to the other,” Johnson told the Sullivan County Board of Education on April 6.
Just before the trip, classmates presented Oaks with a new wheeled walker to replace his worn-out old one, and — when there wasn’t room for his walker — the six other students on the trip literally carried him through parts of the tourist attractions on a special device borrowed from East Tennessee State University’s medical school.
“We made him a part of our team for Skills USA,” Johnson said Monday of Oaks’ participation at the statewide competition in Chattanooga, following his observing regional competition in Blountville.
Oaks is a student in Craig Haynie’s carpentry class across the hall from Johnson’s class.
At the statewide competition, Oaks and juniors Julia Light and Makayla McKracken competed in the contest for suitcase display, making a model of the automotive technology shop.
“He’s like a brother to me now,” Julia Light said Monday. At regionals, senior Matt Mowell won first place in brakes and senior Dakota McClain won fourth place in auto service technician. There was no suitcase competition at regionals, so Oaks, Julia Light and McKracken competed in that category at the state contest.
Junior Cody Shipley, a more than 200-pound junior and member of the football team, and others helped carry Oaks at Ruby Falls and Rock City on a stairway chair, a type of stretcher used to carry people up and down narrow stairwells. Classmates temporarily attached wheels to the device so as not to damage it but make it more functional for the trip.
One photo from the trip shows Shipley helping Oaks across the swinging bridge at Rock City.
“We had talked about it, wanting to take him and find a way to get him down there,” McClain said. Johnson said special education officials in the school system and Bo Shadden, who heads CTE programs countywide, also helped with financing the trip expenses for Oaks.
Oaks Monday said he enjoyed the competition but first mentioned the other activities.
“I enjoyed the trip,” Oaks said, adding that his favorite things were “going down into Ruby Falls and getting to go on top of that Lookout Mountain and see seven states and getting to get into a go kart and ride around.”
Attending the Chattanooga trip were Shipley, sophomore Evan Light, Mowell, McClain, Julia Light, McKracken and Oaks. Oaks’ aide, Tim Dykes, and Johnson’s wife also made the trip.
The students were honored during the April school board meeting along with other groups from across the school system.
Johnson said his CTE students began raising money to buy Oaks a new walker when it became apparent his old one — which CTE students had welded and otherwise repaired — was in Johnson’s words “rickety and worn” and just no longer serviceable.
“That’s his old one,” McClain said, pointing to a walker with wobbly wheels in the automotive technology classroom. “It’s broken, although we welded it a few times.”
The students raised almost $500 for the new walker, which Oaks’ health insurance would not cover. He said word leaked out he was getting a new walker, but he didn’t know the source until the CTE students presented it to him under a big bow.
Johnson said he is now working to help Oaks get a new van with a wheelchair lift.
Oaks’ grandfather, Cecil Oaks, has one leg and must use a walker or wheelchair to get around. Johnson said the youth’s mother died when he was 9 and his father isn’t around.
“Half the time he calls me dad, and half the time he calls me grandfather,” Cecil Oaks said, adding that he’s raised the younger Oaks since he came home from the hospital.
Johnson said he sought BOE recognition of all the students involved.
“I don’t just recognize the students, I recognize Kenny,” Johnson told the BOE. “He makes your day bright just as soon as he comes in.”
After graduation Thursday, Oaks would like to get a job in either a grocery store setting or an automotive service-related business.
“He’s got his name in to a few places,” Cecil Oaks said. “We’ve been trying to get him into a collage program.”
In addition, he said his grandson may go into a vocational rehabilitation program that could help him gain employment.