Lion Heart: Welcome to the new kind of classroom

Lion Heart

Welcome to the new kind of classroom

Photo credit and copyrights to Shane Collins & Gonzo Okanagan

I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Varabioff. He loved to lecture and assign us work and then, when we were to open our books, bow our heads and focus, he would surreptitiously pace the classroom with a meter stick in his hand. If he saw someone dozing or staring aimlessly out the window, he would bring the stick down hard with a deafening, ‘thwack!’ onto the students desk. I was one of his favorite pupils to demonstrate his authority. “Damn it, Shane, why can’t you just focus? See me for detention after school.” This kind of thing would happen throughout my academic life within the confines of classrooms. 

These days, school is a lot different. Many things have changed. New technology allows for tools that go beyond the textbook. Understanding the potential that exists beyond the patterns of behavior, however,  that is still a challenge. 

Meet Ashley Sali, Executive Director of Vista Academy – a new learning center designed to facilitate the wide spectrum of educational needs for kids of all ages right here in Kelowna.

I met up with her as she prepared for her open house. She had some friends and their kids along with them and when I arrived, so did the pizza. 

I was handed a slice and as I tore into the pizza, I ignored all my manners and, with a face full of food, I asked, “so… how long have you been getting this off the ground?”

Ashley politely swallowed her bite of pizza and said, “we’re coming into our third year. There’s been lots of renovations and we’ve installed new areas for kids to get the wiggles out.” She walks me over to a room full of cool stuff like a rock climbing wall, hammocks, monkey bars, and a slew of toys and games. 

A place to play

“This is rad. How hard has it been getting this all together?” 

She scoffed and laughed to herself. “It’s kind of like building an airplane while you’re trying to fly it.” Ashley looks over the room. “With my team and our board of directors, we did the framing, the drywall, flooring, the paint and came up with the design and concept.” I can see the pride in her smile. “Plumbing and electrical excluded, we built this from the ground up.” 

Ashley walked me around the place. There’s a classroom with desks and books that line shelves along a far wall. There’s another room with art supplies and a chalkboard. Another room has a big TV and couches. Out in the hallway, there are two, closet sized rooms with pillows on the floor and lights that dangle down from its ceiling like the tentacles of jellyfish.

Light and audio therapy

“These are rooms for sensory therapy using light and audio. The lights are synched to the music.” Two kids are hanging out in the little room. They give us a smile and a wave as Ashley pulls the curtain to the side. She points to the headphones. “Kids need their brains stimulated in all sorts of ways. We try to design the schooling around those needs and provide learning environments that cater to a wide range of children who will gain from that stimulated environment. We try to create a learning experience, custom to the individual needs of the kids who come through here.” 

We walk into the biggest room within the space. “This is where everyone can play.” She jumps in with some kids who are climbing along a colorful climbing wall. “Can you remember being young and wishing you could just run around a little?” (I think back to that meter stick coming down hard onto my desk and being scolded for my mind wandering.) I nod my head and smile. 

“Students with special needs tend to require an environment where they can run and play and through that process we can assess how to approach the learning needs of the students.” Kids are swinging from a swing off to the side of a set of monkey bars. Other kids are sitting quietly by themselves, putting puzzles together. 


Ashley walks me into another room. A young girl is making slime. Ashley sits with her. “Well, we don’t have a few ingredients for slime but let’s try anyway.” The two of them sit there stirring in gooey pastes and try to make a slime type mixture. “Maybe it’s not slime,” Ashley says. The little girl smiles up at the spatula and a long, stringy, purple blob plopped back into the bowl. “Looks like purple goop.” 

The little girl looks into the bowl and says, ‘goop is good, too.’ We all have a laugh at that. 

Making goop

We head into the kitchen. “What are some of the big hurdles in all of this?” 

“Oh, it’s always funding and letting the community know that we’re here. We’ve had a $40,000 cut in funding so we’re constantly looking to fundraise and apply for bursaries and grants.” 

Ashley wears a tower of hats, flying this vehicle of learning. She’s the Executive Director, the planner, she has been a carpenter and designer, she’s the promoter, the accountant and she’s the face of this venture. She pulls an average of a 19 hour work day, seven days a week, fully committed to keeping everything afloat. 

And it’s working. Through it all, Vista begins its voyage.

Vista Academy

As I write this, Ashley is making the final arrangements for her open house. She tells me ages range from 12 months old up to young adults. She has 10 full time employees. The doors are nearly ready to be open for the public. It’s an exciting time here and I for one am in awe of the passion, persistence and perseverance Ashley and her team has displayed in getting everything off the ground, during a pandemic. It’s yet another example of what one can do when they are truly passionate about what motivates them.

Ashley’s been blessed with having two kids of her own who’ve had to find their own way along the wide spectrum of learning. It’s been a journey and it’s led Ashley to not only dedicate herself to help educating others, but to build a school, and build it from the ground up. 

Room to move


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The Okanagan’s been my home since I was born. Life has taken me across the planet several times and through that transient lifestyle I developed a journalistic style to my photography and to my writing. My influences would be that of James Nachtwey, Annie Lebovitz, Ashley Maile, Hunter S Thompson, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Tom Robbins, Wes Anderson and Charles Bukowski. The world outside this incredible valley, its cultures and its mystery is what’s kept me working and trying to save my money, so I can keep getting back into the world. That’s the way it used to be. Covid has opened my eyes to the land I call my home and there are so many tales to tell right here in BC. From tales of the impoverished to the neglected to those who overcome adversity, to the spirit to overcome fear, the power of storytelling has never been more relevant. I’ve always been a storyteller. There’s a tale worth telling in every neighborhood. I just happen to write about what happens to me along the way and I’ve kept them close to my heart, hoping one day I’ll have an outlet so I can tell those stories the best way I know how; by writing them down. From adventures of long ago, both here or maybe far away, future interviews with musicians, artists of all kinds, the coverage of events, the people I meet along the way, whatever I get up to I intend to have you as my guest as I go back in time and dig up the bones of those old adventures or chase down new ones. Through the alchemy of storytelling, you can come along with me if you like. Before Covid-19 I was really coming into my own photographing live shows; punk rock bands, hip hop showcases, tattoo portraits, rock climbing adventures, Femme Fatale burlesque performances you name it, the phone was finally beginning to ring. Then Covid showed up like a hurricane and I guess it wiped us all out in one way or another. I have a real bone to pick with Covid-19 and if I can share some stories for our readers to enjoy, I’ll do that and when we can return to live music and to foreign travel and we can safely get to working on mending what’s been damaged I tell you I want to be ringside like Joe Rogan commentating on Covid getting its ass whooped. I want to see it tap out and watch us overcome this hardship, raise our collective hands triumphantly and move on into whatever new normal is waiting for us. I’ll be there and through my eyes, just like the boss man, Hunter himself, I’ll do it in Gonzo fashion and bring you kicking and screaming along with me. So hold on tight and dig in. It might not always be pretty but I won’t call it all ugly, neither. That’s for you to decide. My name is Shane Collins and I hope you’ll read along with me and our team here at


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