Morgan Reynolds had already won over her kindergarten students by the time the first day of school rolled around.
The 5-year-olds who attended Monday's open house at Allatoona Elementary School in Acworth got the first look at their new home away from home — a classroom that received a complete makeover through a $10,000 grant Reynolds won from the Meemic Foundation and its partner, Lakeshore Learning.
Done in the relaxing, calm colors of gray, black and blue, the remodeled classroom features four new tables with four new socially distanced chairs at each (eight more chairs have been stashed away for later); two new computer tables; a reading corner with a pint-sized couch, matching chair, two beanbag chairs, a bookcase and pillows; several wobble stools; new desks for Reynolds and her paraprofessional, Cathy Dye; a whiteboard table; and a new larger rug for group activities.
"They came in, and right away, they were on the couch and on the beanbags and on the wobbly stools so I think they'll really like that," Reynolds said. "For kindergarten, they can't sit still, and they shouldn't have to so I like the wobbly stools for that."
During the big reveal of the finished product Tuesday morning, foundation representative Lourdes Colon said Reynolds' room was "wonderful."
"It's definitely serving the need right now for what we need for the safety precautions," she said. "The seating is spread out in a way that does give you that flexibility for the kids to move around to different areas, which is, I think, important for kindergartners so I think she did a great job. She's the one who knows best. I'm a kid at heart, and I would be excited to be in here myself."
Also at the reveal, representatives from AAA Auto Club Group — AAA owns the insurance company for teachers called Meemic, which started the foundation — surprised Reynolds with a check for $300 to purchase more books to add to the new bookcases.
"I appreciate that," she said, calling the donation "a huge blessing." "That's exciting. We always need more books — always. Just getting their hands on books is such a big deal for many, many reasons so I'm very, very thankful for that."
Starting her sixth year at ALES, Reynolds was one of 12 winners – three each from Georgia, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin – to receive a grant and is the first one to get her remodel completed.
The makeover was supposed to take place during spring break in April, but the coronavirus shutdown pushed it back indefinitely.
Because Reynolds is due to go on maternity leave in October, however, she was allowed to have everything installed now while her room is empty so a crew from Lakeshore set it up July 27.
"Lakeshore was excellent," she said. "There were four gentlemen, and they wouldn't let me do anything. I tried, but they wouldn't let me. They were awesome, and they even had a company that came and hauled off all the trash. We didn't do anything. We were very thankful."
The Bartow County educator, who is teaching kindergarten for the second year, said she was "very impressed, very impressed" with how the room turned out.
"I was here last Monday when they did it all so to watch it from a gazillion boxes to all this, I was very excited," she said.
She also said she feels "just very thankful" for the grant.
"I feel very undeserving, but really and truly, it couldn't have come at a better time," she said. "I feel like right now, it's just a lot of negative and down so I feel like the timing couldn't have been better."
The overall goal for Reynolds' design for the room was space.
"I tried to maximize my space, but yet I wanted my kids to have their areas as well," she said. "And with going through what we're going through currently, I wanted to keep that in mind so I wanted space. The layout, the color scheme, everything, I wanted to be relaxing and calming, especially with the age group that I teach."
Reynolds, who will have 15 students this year, said the big, blue rug is her favorite item from the makeover, but she also loves the reading corner.
"It's larger than my old rug, and I'm all about them getting up and moving so they'll be able to move more and still be on the rug," she said. "I would definitely say my favorite part's the rug, and then it would have to be the reading area. I'm going to encourage them — obviously, it's going to have to be one at a time this year— to lounge out on that couch or on the beanbags and just get comfortable."
Because the "demographics are different" for the area around Allatoona, Reynolds said school is more to students than just a place to learn reading and math.
"Our children really, really love school," she said. "It's their safe place, and it's more than just educating. A hug's not just a hug here. It's very rewarding teaching in the area that we teach in. You become attached, and I know you do everywhere, but here especially. It's definitely a family."
The kindergarten teacher said she heard about the grant program, which just became available to Georgia educators last year, at a staff meeting and was encouraged to apply for one.
"I don't win anything ever," she said. "So I applied, and I think Pam [Harlin with Meemic] called me in February, and I wasn't answering because I was teaching, and during my planning, I got an email from one of the front office ladies that said, 'Someone is trying to get in touch with you.' So I called, and Pam told me, and I was like 'You're lying. There's no way.'"
Reynolds said she asked Harlin if she was sure she had the right person "like three or four times."
"I was like, 'I don't win anything,' and 'How much money?'" she said. "I was very thrilled."
Colon said the winners were selected by a random drawing, not from "any application or essay or anything like that."
"We try to make our grants very simple," she said. "Teachers don't have a lot of time. They are busy. We all know they need stuff so we tried to make the grant program very easy for them. They just need to apply for it — 'Hey, I need that' — and then it's a random selection."