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Sensory garden helps residents with disabilities

The AHRC's sensory garden, seen here on Friday,

The AHRC's sensory garden, seen here on Friday, June 30, 2017, opened in May. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

An outdoor garden that stimulates the senses for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities has sprouted in Shoreham.

The Association for Habilitation and Residential Care Suffolk’s therapeutic sense garden aims to help the 96 residents at the Shoreham campus — many of whom have sensory processing disorder, which occurs when the brain has difficulty receiving and responding to information coming through the five senses, officials said.

The garden, which opened in May, sits on nearly an acre of land in the middle of the campus, surrounded by trees. It’s sectioned off into five areas — each catering to a different sense.

“Many of the residents have sensory deprivation,” said Linda Bruno, director of intermediate care facilities for the nonprofit agency. “Our expectation is for it to be a place to enjoy nature.”

Upon entering, residents are greeted by a group of colorful musical instruments to appeal to the sense of hearing. A yellow wheel also radiates the sound of rain.

For the sense of smell, a fenced wall is lined with plastic bottles growing fragrant plants such as French tarragon, oregano, mint, cilantro and chives. Residents can pull at the plant stems to release their scents.

Individuals can walk barefoot across granite stones for the sense of touch, and residents who use wheelchairs can explore a spin wheel covered in hard, smooth and sharp rocks.

A fountain resembling a palm tree sprays water at different speeds for different sensations, officials said.

Painted bricks and signs with quotes about nature appeal to the sense of sight, while a raised vegetable garden grows lettuce and tomatoes.

Christine Gallo, behavior and intervention specialist at the Shoreham facility, designed the garden in the formerly underutilized outdoor space more than two years ago.

She said the outdoor garden — the only one at AHRC’s 42 sites — was mentally and physically beneficial for the center’s residents, who range in age from 18 to 92.

“People can use their senses in an actual environment,” she said. “It was a no-brainer. It’s a dream come true.”

The garden cost $315,000 to construct, and was funded by donations from community businesses and residents. Youth groups such as the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts helped with the gardening, Gallo said.

AHRC, based in Bohemia, offers a wide range of programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, officials said.

Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and those who need permanent housing are often referred to AHRC, and those with the most complex medical needs are referred to the Shoreham site through a residential program with the Suffolk organization.

Many community groups also have used the garden, according to the agency.

“I love it. It’s a great idea,” said Laura Eaton, assistant program administrator at the site. “Individuals have enjoyed it.”

Engaging all senses

The garden provides these sensory experiences for residents:

  • Touch: A circular stone path
  • Sight: Painted bricks and signs
  • Smell: Fragrant plants
  • Sound: Musical instruments and a rain wheel
  • Taste: Raised vegetable garden

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