Project brings together Alabama students, veterans

The students are using the experience to learn about the veterans' special needs and what they may require in the interior design of senior centers, nursing homes and hospital environments.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — A group of interior design students from the University of Alabama sat around a table recently playing games with veterans who live at the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs Medical Center's new skilled nursing care cottage.

But for the students, playing games with the veterans, handing out popcorn and singing carols to them during the holidays is just a small part of the group's partnership with the Tuscaloosa VA. The students are using the experience to learn about the veterans' special needs and what they may require in the interior design of senior centers, nursing homes and hospital environments.

"It was so beneficial for me to come and see them and spend time with (the veterans) when designing," said Kayla Pendly, a UA junior majoring in interior design.

As part of the partnership, the design students worked with VA interior designers to learn about the design process and come up with their own designs for the interior of the new skilled nursing care cottage, which opened in the fall. Later, the students were able to come back and see how the cottage was actually designed and work with the staff to help unpack furniture and stage the home, where 10 veterans live.

As part of their experience, the students also volunteer their time by helping host events like a "fiesta" night for the veterans, a movie night and ice cream socials. They also play chess and other games with the Tuscaloosa VA residents and have assisted with a patient dance.

During one of their visits, the UA students were required to get around solely by wheelchair.

"We learned a lot about the special needs population, the ADA requirements and how much space is actually needed," said Lauren St. John, a junior from Hoover.

Fellow student Kaitlyn Hall agreed.

"It was very cool to see the whole (design) process after working with them, and to help put it all together," Hall said.

The Tuscaloosa VA is in the process of building up to a dozen 10,000-square-foot cottages for veterans who need skilled nursing care. The project also includes an expansive, 25,000-square-foot central community center that will have a barber shop, a coffee shop, a library and a game room devoted solely to playing Nintendo Wii video games.

The Tuscaloosa VA's first cottage, named Magnolia House, was unveiled in November. Instead of the traditional, hospital-like hallways with tiny rooms and a sterile, institution-like environment, the cottages and the newly renovated community living center at the Tuscaloosa VA have home-like environments that are designed around the special needs of the residents.

Having the students work with the veterans as well as the cottage space will hopefully help spread the idea of a homelike, patient-centered environment when it comes to nursing home and hospital facilities, said Teresa Tillman, lead interior designer at the Tuscaloosa VA.

"We feel like we are on the cusp of something new here, and this is a perfect model, where the focus is on the veteran and not the staff," Tillman said. "It will help further this idea, by the students working here."

Stephanie Sickler, assistant professor of interior design at UA, presented the partnership program recently at a regional VA leadership meeting and will present it at two national design conferences this year.

"The experiential learning is what we are going for, because it will make a lasting impression," Sickler said.

The partnership is beneficial both for the students and for the veterans, said Tuscaloosa VA spokesman Damon Stevenson.

"This collaboration with the university is one of several that we work with here at the Tuscaloosa VA," Stevenson said. "We want to continue to get the community out to the center and be involved with the veterans."

As part of the project this semester, students will continue working with the Tuscaloosa VA and will interview veterans about their lives, Sickler said. Then, students will use their design skills to create five displays, possibly incorporating recordings and video, to help veterans tell their stories. The story "booths" will be on display at the Tuscaloosa VA in April and May, leading up to Memorial Day.