MONMOUTH, Ill. — Each year News 8 receives nominations from students throughout eastern Iowa and western Illinois who want to recognize "My Favorite Teacher." We feature five outstanding educators each year.
United West Elementary School north of Monmouth looks like any other school in a rural school district, but it has a very special place.
It's the "Wonder Pod," and inside is special education teacher Meleiah Sims and fifth grader Conner Hare.
"Every day is a different day, a new challenge," said Conner's mother, Megan.
Mrs. Sims is a woman in Conner's life who has met the challenge.
"Can you tell Miss Sims you're my favorite teacher?" asks Megan as Conner presents one of the five "My Favorite Teacher" awards for 2022.
Conner can't communicate well yet. Diagnosed with autism at 18 months old, he's come to depend on his mother and family at home - and Mrs. Sims at school.
"It's easy to send him to school knowing he's with somebody that will do the best for him, wants the best for him, and loves him almost as much as I do," said Megan Hare.
Meleiah Sims has been in education for 31 years but came to United West four years ago to create what's affectionately called the "Wonder Pod."
What were once school offices is now a four room safe place, complete with sensory conscious colors and materials to allow children with special needs to thrive.
"It's just been perfect," Mrs. Sims said.
"Like a dream come true for me. It's what I always wanted to do was design a classroom that would have all the elements that would make it the best possible for these kids and they let me do that."
But it's also perfect for Conner and the families living in rural areas who have few options outside the bigger cities for their children to learn and grow.
"The need is great, especially in these areas," she added.
The Hares live in Alexis, and say they might otherwise need to drive Conner to the Quad Cities or Peoria for the type of attention and education he gets at United West Elementary.
"She just knows him so well and I just feel so comfortable with him here with her because I know he's safe," Megan Hare said.
"We just need to give them a way to communicate their wants and needs," Mrs. Sims said regarding the handful of students who get the individual attention they need.
This will be Conner's last year with Mrs. Sims.
The 10-year-old has been in this classroom since first grade, but it will soon be time to move on.
The Hares aren't sure how Conner will adjust to new people and a new place to learn.
But they are grateful for the four years he's spent at United West's Wonder Pod.
"Mrs. Sims and her staff Mrs. (Angela) Reimolds, Mrs. (Kelley) Whitsitt and Mrs. Bellinger (his bus driver) make it easy for this overprotective mom to her send her minimally verbal, autistic son to school each day knowing he is loved and well taken care of," Megan said.