CM Cares project brings outside world into backyard for three children with special needs

Zach Young, Lukas Bowles, Kendall Peterson, Owen Keaser and Clayton Gray (left to right, back row), students in the CM Cares class present their project, renovating the deck and patio of the VanWhye family home. One of the boys, Javier, and one of Shea VanWhye's daughters, Otiana, did not attend the Dec. 12 ceremony. In front are Shea VanWhye, Logan, Ethan and Alana.
Zach Young, Lukas Bowles, Kendall Peterson, Owen Keaser and Clayton Gray (left to right, back row), students in the CM Cares class present their project, renovating the deck and patio of the VanWyhe family home. One of the boys, Javier, and one of Shea VanWhye's daughters, Otiana, did not attend the ceremony. In front are Shea VanWhye, Logan, Ethan and Alana.

To understand why Shea VanWyhe cares for three boys with special needs, each of whom uses a wheelchair — plus two teen girls, three dogs, three cats and three pot-bellied pigs — it helps to know about Courtney, a young girl from VanWyhe’s hometown of Kersey, Colorado.

“My Girl Scout leader had a daughter who had severe cerebral palsy. She was confined to a wheelchair, she couldn’t talk. She was (gastronomy-tube) fed,” VanWyhe said. “She kind of taught us about her needs and her disability and things she couldn’t do. And she kind of became like my sister growing up.”

Courtney died at age 13. But the lessons Courtney taught charted the course of VanWyhe’s life.

“I just fell in love with the special needs community,” VanWyhe said. “Another big part of that is my daughter being born the way that she was. I was a young mom. I was 18 when I had Otiana. Finding out that she had had a stroke when I was pregnant with her was very scary to me.

“I was at Children’s Hospital all the time and just learning about everything, and I kind of just fell into it and it seems to be the only thing I’m good at is taking care of other people. … That’s what I love to do. I love taking care of people. I’ve always been that way.”

‘A space that is accessible’

The CM (Construction Management) Cares team at Colorado State University is working on a project to improve VanWyhe’s home for the boys, 7-year-old Logan, 8-year-old Ethan and 2-year-old Javier, and teen girls Otiana, 17, and Alana, 15.

CM Cares is a leadership and service-learning program and class in CSU’s Department of Construction Management. Students complete a building project to benefit a family or community agency and leverage industry partners to help donate building materials and provide volunteers. In the VanWyhe family project, CM Cares students were able to impact the lives of several children with severe disabilities.

VanWyhe said the boys are mostly nonverbal and will never walk. She said Logan, who has been with her for four years, needs help showering, grooming and toileting. She said Logan was severely beaten before he was a month old and eats through a feeding tube.

VanWyhe said Ethan has agenesis of the corpus callosum, which is associated with a variety of disabilities. She said Ethan is the most aware of his surroundings. She hopes to adopt Logan and Javier early in 2023.

CM Cares’ original plan called for a concrete slab extension, new Trex decking on top of the existing structure, a new door to the deck and overall yard cleanup.

“Shea, the homeowner, fosters and adopts children with severe disabilities,” said Kendall Peterson, one of five CM Cares project team leaders. “This deck will allow children who are in wheelchairs the ability to go outside in a space that is accessible and safe for their use with or without a supervisor. This will affect not only her current five children, but any others who she is selflessly willing to bring in.”

Throwing in a wrench

Things change in construction.

“Once we pulled it up we realized we needed to redo the entire structure of the (rotting) deck,” said Zach Young, another team member. “How we were able to combat this was by recruiting lots of volunteer help, either students or construction companies. This is the only way we were able to get back on track with the project.”

Plan B involved removing the existing deck structure, redesigning and building a new 7,000-square-foot deck with a long wheelchair accessible ramp, attaching a pig pen to an existing shed, leaving out major yard cleanup and delaying improving a rehabilitation room inside VanWhye’s home until 2023.

The changes added to the timeline and budget for the core team of construction management students Peterson, Young, Clayton Gray, Lukas Bowles and Owen Keaser. Instead of getting major donations, the CM Cares team relied on labor help.

The companies and individuals who assisted included: Kraemer North America; McCarthy Building Co.; FCI Constructors, Inc.; Brinkman Construction; Swinerton; JHL Constructors; Saunders Health; Brinkmann Constructors; Kiewit Infrastructure; and Mike O’Reilly.

“Everything that they have done has been such a blessing, and I obviously cannot do it by myself,” VanWhye said. “So I more than appreciate what they have done.”

Growing relationships

VanWhye is a part-owner of Connect. Grow. Thrive., which offers individual residential services and supports, respite, non-medical transportation and more. She had been a host home provider for adults but then shifted to being a home provider for children.

She gets some government assistance for services offered, including the Children’s Habilitation Residential Program Waiver (CHRP) program that provides services for children and youth who have an intellectual or developmental disability and very high needs.

VanWhye said she has help to watch her children, but it’s easier to stay at home. She also plans to provide more rehabilitative and other therapeutic services from her home office.

The CM Cares workers became a bit like extended family during the process.

“The family has been very flexible with our construction schedule and will graciously get us hot coffee and donuts on cold days,” Peterson said. “At first it was a working relationship; we were trying our best to stay out of their way and be respectful of their needs. Now, we are more communicative; we had a BBQ a few weeks ago and grilled burgers for everyone.”

Little pig, little pig, let me in!

Growing up in a rural setting, VanWhye wanted animals as a kid. Along with other pets, she acquired a black-and-white potbellied pig named Toby Ludo VanWeeWee. When someone saw that pig, VanWhye was asked if she could take another — and then another — pig, so now she has three.

Not to be left out, the pigs got some indoor space of their own before winter. A shed was converted to a pig house (not made of straw nor sticks) along with a new fenced area.

Young said the pigs were “a lot” to deal with at times and that they eat anything. Peterson said that before the new pen was done, keeping track of the pigs was difficult.

“I absolutely love the pigs, but wow did they give me a heart attack,” Peterson said. “Whenever I am on site, I subconsciously make mental notes about where and how many pigs are in the backyard. One day it was just me on site with a contractor and I typically am constantly aware or double checking if the gate is closed and if I can see three pigs. Well, I make my typical scan of the backyard and only see the two black pigs.”

Peterson checked all Toby’s hiding places, called his name, didn’t see him in the front yard or on a nearby busy street, so she went through the neighborhood with some popcorn to lure him.

“I’m walking for about five minutes, and I see this big potbelly pig rounding a corner to meet me,” she said. “I was so relieved, and I enticed him with popcorn all the way home while multiple cars patiently waited as I escorted him through the neighborhood.”

Building memories and friendships

VanWhye said the CM Cares team has made an impression beyond the work.

“They’re absolutely amazing,” she said. “They’re very respectful. They always talk to the boys when they come through the house. And there’s just been little things that they’ve helped me with, that honestly they don’t need to help me with, you know what I mean?”

The team members also became more than classmates.

“Before CM Cares, the other project leaders were just four guys who would pass in the hall,” Peterson said. “Now I consider them some of my best buds. They have helped me grow as an individual and construction professional.”

Asked what he will remember in years to come, Young said: “I will remember the team and the camaraderie the most. … I got the opportunity to work with such an amazing team in order to bring this great project to Shea and her family.”

‘The outside world into my home’

CM Cares plans to work on a rehabilitation room where VanWhye can do some physical therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy and discharge therapy. There also will be shelves for sensory items, a changing table and more space for medical equipment.

“That’s going to help tremendously,” VanWhye said. “With all the therapies and as they grow, for the therapists to be able to work with them, it just gives us more room in life for everything that they accumulate.”

VanWhye, her daughter Alana and two of the boys attended the Dec. 12 CM Cares presentation in CSU’s Guggenheim Hall, as the other two children weren’t feeling well. She said taking everyone out isn’t easy.

“So to have that access right in our backyard to where we can take them all out in a controlled environment is going to be amazing,” she said. “This has just been an awesome project, getting to know these guys.

“Them being in our home, they’ve just kind of became like an extended part of the family. And we’re super, super appreciative of everything that they’ve done for us. This is a way that I can bring the outside world into my home for these boys.”

About CM Cares

CM Cares is a community service-learning initiative that infuses leadership traits, team building and ethics through community service activities. More than 30 projects have been completed since the program’s inception in 2010.

CSU students in the Construction Management program complete a leadership course and manage construction-related projects that provide physical improvements to accommodate special needs, such as building wheelchair ramps or making bathrooms more accessible.

CM Cares is dependent on philanthropic efforts through continued contributions to the CM Cares Endowment. Donations to the CM Cares Endowment may be made at:

For more information, visit the CM Cares website or contact Khristy Jesse at

The Department of Construction Management is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.