Hesstonians dream up a different kind of academy

Dwight Roth and John Byler are dreaming up a new form of education and community building based in a victorian home, Ol’ Yeller, in Wichita.

The Hesstonians are both known for their creative thinking and ability to turn adversity into a learning experience.

While tragedy brought Roth and Byler together, the men found they could accomplish more together than apart.

“We met the day of my mother’s funeral. Dwight’s hands were trembling because he has Parkinson’s, and I have my challenge. He’s a connector. He networks. He’s an ideas guy, and I am, too,” said Byler.

Byler, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, went on to co-found the BISON Foundation, which offers support to TBI survivors, while Roth has not let his “Parkinson’s Challenge” slow him at all.

“The idea is what we’re calling Lions in Winter, professor emeritus at Hesston College partnering with younger professors in Wichita. And I have this Victorian house that didn’t sell, and God evidently had something in mind for it,” Byler said.

Byler and Roth said, through volunteerism and emeritus professors, they plan to form an academy based in Ol’ Yeller and have hired Wichitan Kamron Koeber as the executive director.

“We want this to be intergenerational, multi-ethnic and interdisciplinary. Just like it isn’t some superstar neurologist that’s going to get you better, it’s a team. The idea is to bring the neighborhood together and create something educational,” Byler said.

Roth added he plans to bring Hesstonians to Wichita so the communities could connect and learn from each other.

“The first course we teach will have to do with dance and the brain. They’re finding dance is very powerful for the brain, and I’ve taken my love of dance and want to teach a course in it for people with brain injuries and challenges,” he said.

In doing so, Roth has already reached out to Bluestem Communities.

As the pair present their idea to potential volunteers and professors, both said they have received overwhelming support.

“There are a lot of Lions in Winter who have not succumbed to old age, and they want to contribute,” said Byler.

To help facilitate intergenerational relationships, Ol’ Yeller will receive a facelift and become more wheelchair differently-abled accessible.

“I think it is symbolic it was built in 1905 and our emphasis is the intergenerational component. I like the idea that we have this very old house being the seat of a new idea in education,” Roth said.

In cooperation with the organization No Craft Left Behind, Ol’ Yeller will officially become Monica House, complete with classrooms, recording studio and art display centers.

Roth said educational offerings will range from traditional lecture series to hands-on vocational training.

“College is overrated and over priced—and for what? We want artists to not be told they can’t make a living with their art. We will teach stained glass, glass blowing, woodworking, jewelry making. Things with their hands; I’m so sick of people thinking they need to be in front of a computer to make a living. We want to get people away from virtual reality and into actual reality,” Byler said.

Byler said he and Roth are testimonials to the success of not only coping with difficult realities but thriving.

“Our day-to-day lives are not easy, but we want to set an example that maybe someone society has deemed disabled makes a profound impact,” Byler said.

Roth added, “I see my Parkinson’s as a challenge or an occupation, not a disease. This is part of meeting that challenge and occupation.”

Roth said anyone with a passion for teaching or a passion for learning will be welcome at the academy.

“People can volunteer for a course for one hour or five weeks. It’s very much a one-size-fits-one in terms of what is offered,” he said.

Byler added volunteering at the academy can also be a business strategy, and professors and volunteers will have space to display their works and promote their products.

The project falls under the umbrella of the BISON Foundation.

“If you believe in what we are doing, donate to the BISON foundation. This is just one of its initiatives,” Byler said.

More information, including opening date and class offerings, will be forthcoming on the BISON Foundation’s website and social media.

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