Chris Rosenblum: Classmates enjoy room to honor Henry

Betsy Gill reads to her children, Lissy and Joshua, in Henry’s Book Nook. Lissy Gill was one of Henry’s classmates. Also reading on the left is Henry’s cousin, Liadan Walker.
Betsy Gill reads to her children, Lissy and Joshua, in Henry’s Book Nook. Lissy Gill was one of Henry’s classmates. Also reading on the left is Henry’s cousin, Liadan Walker.

A year ago, it was instantly forgettable, just a storage room for keeping physical therapy equipment.

Who could forget it now?

A few months and a lot of love produced a dramatic transformation at the Lance and Ellen Shaner Child Development Center.

Recently, the Easter Seals school in College Township opened a bright, inviting enclave for children. Geometric circles pattern a rug. Leafy green paint covers the former drab tan walls.

Dozens of books tucked in shelves wait for little hands to take them to brown beanbag chairs and plump, polka-dot pillows. There’s a wall chalkboard for writing — or exuberant scribbling — and hand puppets and a flannel board bin for those who prefer to create their own tales.

Over on a corner shelf rests a scrapbook packed with photos. It’s a reminder that sadness tinges the room’s joy — but that the space still serves a therapeutic purpose.

Henry’s Book Nook consoles the center’s mourning teachers and staff. Stepping inside, they remember their lost friend.

Henry Walker would have turned 6 on Saturday. Last October, while playing, he strayed into the road past his Spring Mills home and was hit by a truck.

Deaf since infancy and reliant on two hearing aids, he attended the center for more than two years. Teachers knew him as an affable, exuberant, inquisitive boy with expressive fingers for signing and a love for books.

His parents, Mike Walker and Bonnie Cirillo, knew how important the center was in his life.

From there began a collective effort, stretching as far as Michigan, to honor his memory.

Just after Henry’s death, his grandmother’s office wanted to give to Easter Seals. That inspired a line in his obituary encouraging donations. So many poured in, Cirillo started wondering what could be done for the center.

“We wanted to give back because it was his second home,” she said.

She was adamant about one point. Any gift needed to reflect Henry’s interests and personality, something that he would have been proud to claim.

Previously, she had contemplated an Easter Seals fundraiser walk or run in his name. Once at such a walk around the Pennsylvania Military Museum grounds in Boalsburg, Henry attacked the course with gusto.

“That boy, he ran four laps,” Cirillo recalled. “He was determined he was going to be first.”

But Henry also liked to race through stories. Perfect. Cirillo and her husband had an idea.

The center’s staff loved it.

Once the utility room was chosen, Henry’s parents wasted no time.

“Mike and I went to Sherwin-Williams and picked the (wall) color, we were so excited,” Cirillo said.

At home over the winter, they spread catalogs out for shopping sprees. Sturdy shelves. Durable chairs. Cheery rug. Washable pillows. And books, piles of them. Cirillo, a preschool teacher herself at Penn State, knew what to pick.

Donations from staff members, center families and other friends — about $4,000 to date — kept them going.

“We’ve been blessed with so many contributions,” Brandy Prebble, the center’s director, said.

One came straight from the hearts of strangers hundreds of miles away.

Through Etsy, Cirillo’s sister contacted a Michigan artist to build a teepee for playtime in the nook and elsewhere — something Henry, who enjoyed building pillow forts at home with his older sister, probably would have liked.

Moved by Henry’s story and the nook project, the artist told her daughter, who enlisted her classmates at Chikaming Elementary School in Sawyer, Mich., to draw red balloons. At Henry’s funeral, family and friends had released red balloons in honor of his favorite color.

The Chikaming students sent dozens of drawings and balloon cutouts. Center teachers framed some of the drawings for the nook, and made a balloon collage for the door. Surplus paper balloons turned a former hallway notice board outside the nook into a memorial of its own.

“We wanted to showcase them,” said Bri Faust, a teacher. “We thought they were beautiful.”

Soon, another gift will arrive.

State College Area High School art students are making a painting of a colorful hand with its forefinger and pinky raised — American Sign Language for “love.” The hand quotes Mark Twain: “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

In December, numerous people spoke the same tongue at the annual Festival of Trees. They bought enough fundraiser ornaments shaped like trains — another of Henry’s likes — to win first place for the center’s tree.

Social media has spread the word; a Chicago family sent board books. Cirillo has been touched by the widespread support, starting with the center staff.

“Henry’s teachers have given their time and creative efforts to make Henry’s Nook a most lovely place to read, draw, think, and daydream. To be a kid,” she said.

So far, the nook has been a hit among the center’s 57 children — from the babies rolling on the rug to the toddlers scrawling on the chalkboard to the older preschoolers curling up in the chairs with books.

Teachers have been bringing children to the nook as a reward for good behavior or accomplishments. Henry, his mother thinks, would have been a frequent visitor.

“He would have asked to come here,” Cirillo said. “Probably would have gotten all his work done in the morning so he would have had special time.”

He’s there in spirit. On one wall hangs a jungle picture with zebras because Henry was in the “zebra” classroom. Among the books are two copies of “Where the Wild Things Are,” a favorite of his.

The corner memory scrapbook invites visitors to add their remembrances.

“That way, five or 10 years down the road, this will always be here so people know who he was or why this room is here,” teacher Amber Lucas said.

Henry’s parents and teachers aren’t done. The nook remains a work in progress, sustaining memories of a short but rich life, of a tiny figure with a huge hold on many — much as Henry’s grandfather, Dave Cirillo, is doing with a memorial website.

Bonnie Cirillo smiles thinking about what else could be done to remember her son and benefit Easter Seals. Maybe there will be a Henry Walker charity race — with a special addition to the entry fee.

“While you’re at it,” she said, “bring a book.”