The challenges that a parent of a special needs child faces are significant. From a lack of support to issues at school to learning how to deal with their son or daughter’s behavior, this 24/7 responsibility oftentimes leaves parents feeling exhausted and alone. Add to that, they often must deal with the unkindness of others when they venture out in public with their child.
But now, thanks to Lion Mary Robinson, a hallway of the Fremont Public Schools administration building in Fremont, Nebraska, has been transformed into an oasis for children with special needs.
The Sensory Courtyard is an area dedicated to engaging all five senses. Home to a hobbit house, a fossil garden, a tree swing and even a “Snoezelen Room,” the Sensory Courtyard is a sanctuary for children with a multitude of special needs who might otherwise not be able to explore their world safely and comfortably.
The power of the human spirit
Lion Mary teaches students who are blind and visually impaired at Fremont Public Schools. She came up with the idea for the courtyard after learning about a child who was blind, but began making great strides when he started gardening with his mother.
Robinson worked with her John C. Fremont Lions Club, neighboring clubs, local nonprofit organizations, artists, architects and the school board to bring her dream to life. Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) also helped bring this dream to life by awarding a US$75,000 grant to the Lions of District 38 0 for the courtyard.
Children, young adults and entire families enjoy the hands-on experiences of the courtyard. Basalt columns showcase the visual, tactile and audible properties of flowing water. Dancing lights and reflections soothe the spirit. As natural light filters through the glass ceiling, families gather at the sensory table to learn and play games together while listening to calming wind chimes.
“I love taking my son there and seeing his face light up with each new sensation and sensory element,” said Miranda Long of Fremont. “Looking around the courtyard, I see the smiles of children and parents. It’s a beautiful experience.”
A new awakening
The courtyard encourages the exploration of new textures, promotes positive attitudes and inclusion and enriches educational and motor skills development. It also raises awareness of special needs within the community—from visual impairment and mobility limitations to tactile defensiveness.
The Snoezelen Room in the courtyard is a relaxing, multisensory environment that benefits children with autism, those with behavioral concerns, people with visual impairments and even older adults with cognitive disabilities. The room helps reduce anxiety, stimulate reactions and encourage communication. Lights, sounds, textures and smells can be used to calm agitation or spur exploration.
I love taking my son there and seeing his face light up with each new sensation and sensory element.
“When you are given a diagnosis of autism, developmental delay or anything else that places your child in the special needs category, you quickly become overwhelmed by all the things that the doctors, family, friends and society tell you they can’t do,” said Summer Mau, a board member of the Autism Center of Nebraska. “I wanted to do everything I could for my children. The Sensory Courtyard offers us a fun family experience, free of judgment of the abilities my children lack. There are not many situations in our community where we get to experience things together as a family.”
From tactile defensiveness to preschool ready
Ayden Crom, 3, has benefited from the courtyard. He is tactile defensive, which means that his body interprets the sensation of touch with fear, pain or discomfort. Initially, Ayden was unable to interact with many of the courtyard experiences. But his teachers persisted, taking him back regularly over the next several weeks.
Ayden now explores the fossil garden without fear and presses his feet against the squishy bottom of the mud hole. He’s catching up on key developmental milestones and is now ready for preschool.
Only months before the courtyard was due to be unveiled, progress came to a screeching halt when Lion Mary received a devastating diagnosis. What she had written off as simple fatigue was, in fact, acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Armed with a positive attitude, support from her family and community and her refusal to give up, she fought for her life. Her treatment was aggressive, which caused her to be very sick. But she kept on smiling through it all.
The grand opening of the Sensory Courtyard was postponed while Robinson was being treated. But after several rounds of chemotherapy, she was cancer-free, and the courtyard opened to rave reviews.
Now Lion Mary dreams of expanding the courtyard to include even more hands-on sensory experiences, such as camping and additional art, tasting activities or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) exploration areas.
Lion Mary—and millions of other Lions around the world—are changing lives for the better, every day…one person at a time. These compassionate and dedicated volunteers are living proof that kindness really does matter.
Learn more about the mission of Lions Clubs International Foundation through Campaign 100: LCIF Empowering Service, which makes stories like this possible through our grants.
Click on the Download eBook button below to learn more about how the courtyard is changing peoples’ lives, how the project has been a labor of love…and much more!
Cassandra Rotolo is the marketing communications specialist for Lions Clubs International Foundation.