Jade knew right away who she was going to write about in her essay.
"Ms. Allison," the fourth-grader said. "She's my play therapist , and she helped me a lot after my sister passed away from cancer."
Jade Otterman, a student at Lookout Valley Elementary School, was awarded a $1,000 scholarship from the Carson Scholars Fund for her essay — becoming the fourth recipient of the national award at the school in five years — and Monday, Jade got to meet Candy Carson, who co-founded the fund with her husband, Dr. Ben Carson, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Candy Carson visited Lookout Valley to see another recipient of the fund — the Ben Carson Reading Room. The reading room is a castle-themed nook in a corner of the school's library featuring special book selections, comfy pillows and places for students to sit and read.
The room, funded by a grant from The Ben Carson Reading Project, opened in January 2016. The project aims to create rich environments for children to promote literacy skills. On Monday, nearby Cloud Springs Elementary in Rossville also was celebrating its own reading room at a grand opening ceremony.
Cloud Springs' room marks the 187th room across the country and the seventh in Tennessee.
Candy Carson said the reading project she co-founded with her husband was inspired by his own experiences in school and growing up with his mother, who was from Chattanooga and had attended school only through the third grade.
"They read and learn to love learning and become lifelong learners," Carson said. "We encourage kids to develop themselves and think of their potential."
When Ben Carson was young, he was not always the best student in school, Carson said. His mother, who cleaned houses, decided to turn off the television one day and require Ben Carson and his brother to check out books from the public library and submit written book reports to her. That changed everything.
"He came from nothing to become a neurosurgeon," Candy Carson said of her husband. "That can happen only in America, right?"
As her husband took the national stage and they began traveling the country, Candy Carson said, they visited schools and saw trophy cases filled with awards for sports or entertainment, but not much celebrating academics or reading.
The Scholars Fund, which has awarded more than 8,000 scholarships in two decades, and the reading project were created to address that.
Librarian Becky Davidson said the reading room at Lookout Valley gives students like Jade a quiet, reflective place that they look forward to visiting.
"They get excited to visit every week," Davidson said. Students seek out specific books and quietly settle in to read, and sometimes students who are having a bad day or need to calm down even use the room as a refuge.
Lookout Valley was able to use some of the funds for the room to pay an artist, Gale Hinton, to complete murals throughout the library, the front entrance and several wings of the school that match the paintings in the library.
Cloud Springs Elementary hopes to emulate that atmosphere with its own reading room. School administrators even visited Lookout Valley to get some ideas.
"Inspired by Dr. and Mrs. Carson's "Think Big" philosophy, and with a generous donation from the Holland Family Foundation, Cloud Springs has created a garden-themed reading room," said principal Kellie Yarbrough in a statement. "Our reading room provides students an opportunity to read in a quiet and comfortable environment with over 500 books of various genres."
Back at Lookout, Jade and her classmates get to visit the library every Wednesday to check out new books and catch up on reading. Jade's mother recently had a baby, another little girl named Callie, so Jade gets to be a big sister again.
What is her favorite part of school, though?
"Reading!" Jade said while standing in front of the whimsical mural in the reading room.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.