NHS Allegheny Valley School's new sensory garden thrills

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Sarah Walker likely was not fully aware of the events surrounding the ribbon-cutting of the new $50,000 sensory garden at the facility where she lives.

But once the formalities were dispensed with, Ms. Walker, who has severe cognitive and physical disabilities, quickly figured out what she liked about the garden at the Patricia Hillman Miller Campus of the NHS Allegheny Valley School. She and her mother, Marcy, and her aunt, Annette Walker, spent time swinging on a handicap-accessible glider, an activity that first brought a smile to Ms. Walker's face and later lulled her nearly to sleep.

"She really loves this," said Marcy Walker, who attended the ribbon cutting last week at the facility in the Fairywood neighborhood near Ingram.

The glider has seats for family members on one side and a wheelchair ramp on the other side that allows a resident to wheel onto it and be locked in.

The Walker family was among several who were enjoying the new outdoor space created to provide a variety of sensory stimulations for residents of the facility.

The garden is the third sensory component at the campus. The others are a sensory room containing a variety of objects and activities to stimulate the senses and a sensory pool with music and fiber optic lights that are used in the water.

Sensory stimulation has been a large part of the program at NHS Allegheny Valley School facilities since 2001, when a sensory committee was established to create a curriculum and facilities for residents, said Michelle Miller, administrator for the Patricia Hillman Miller Campus. The campus is among the residences, group homes and services that NHS Allegheny Valley operates in Western Pennsylvania for people who have severe cognitive and physical disabilities.

The Patricia Hillman Miller Campus has 63 residents who range in age from 16 to 78, and 95 percent of them use wheelchairs.

Ms. Miller said the residents are profoundly mentally disabled and some have medical conditions. "The concept of whole sensory really stimulates them. It gives them different opportunities," she said.

For some residents, sensory stimulation helps to calm them, but for most, it is used for stimulation.

The garden, which previously was open space behind the residence, is designed to stimulate all of the senses.

It has flowers for residents to smell and touch. Sounds include a fountain with a continuous waterfall and a music system that can play a family's favorite tunes during a visit. To stimulate their sense of touch, residents can dig in dirt or put their hands in the fountain.

A sensory table has receptacles filled with items such as dirt, rocks, acorns and leaves for the residents to feel. It is next to a garden with flowers that can be watered with an adaptive push-button device. Adaptive gardening tools are available that can be used from a wheelchair.

Susan Keane, whose son, Evan, 31, has lived at the campus for 17 years, said she is looking forward to sitting in the pavilion that is part of the garden and playing music for her son on the sound system installed inside.

"He likes music a lot, and I think he will like the glider and the fountain as well," said Ms. Keane, who visits her son each weekend.

She's especially appreciative of the pavilion because it created a shady place to sit on her visits. "I really just want to say thanks so much to everyone who made this possible," she said.

Funds for the project came from the Polk Foundation, Allegheny Valley School Foundation, the Ladies Hospital Aid Society and the estate of Seima Horvitz.


Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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