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sensory garden

Smithtown Guide Dog Foundation puppies get used to different smells, like various plants, at Suffolk County’s Association for Habilitation and Residential Care sensory garden in Shoreham June 13. Photo by Amanda Perelli

By Amanda Perelli

Guide Dog Foundation puppies were tested for their obedience at Suffolk County’s Association for Habilitation and Residential Care sensory garden in Shoreham June 13.

Dogs aged 4-to-11 months were invited to the garden, designed to stimulate children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to acclimate the animals to a place they may soon be visiting with new owners.

Smithtown Guide Dog Foundation puppies get used to different sounds, like drums, at Suffolk County’s Association for Habilitation and Residential Care sensory garden in Shoreham June 13. Photo by Amanda Perelli

Human guests of the garden can test their hearing by playing one of the giant instruments or smell the vertical hanging herbs like basil and mint.

The Smithtown-based nonprofit’s nine four-legged members did the same, as they became familiar with strange sounds, textures and smells and walked over pavers, asphalt, rocks, dirt, grass and puddles in the garden’s splash pad.

“We are here today to be able to give back to the community — to give our puppy raisers the opportunity to have their dogs experience all these different sights, sounds, smells and distractions,” said Jordan Biscardi, a puppy adviser in charge of the volunteer dog raisers who guided the event.

He tested each puppy on how well it could remain seated between its raiser’s legs under a table, seamlessly walk past another dog and react to its raiser with a “paw” shake.

“When you go out in the real world with a guide dog, they are going to come across everything,” Biscardi said, adding the owners raise the dogs from 8 weeks to between 1 and 2 years old.

This is the sensory garden’s second season, and the first time hosting the Smithtown-based Guide Dog Foundation.

A trainer walks her dog around Suffolk County’s Association for Habilitation and Residential Care sensory garden in Shoreham June 13. Photo by Amanda Perelli

“It’s designed for the purpose of stimulating the senses,” said Leeana Costa, director of development of the nonprofit AHRC Suffolk. “We have some residential services here that we have for the individuals that we support, and this space is designed to be available to them and to their families — anyone in the community — and that way it is an integrated space, which is something that’s important to AHRC Suffolk.”

Residents of the campus Monica Marie Antonawich, Chrissy Koppel and Pam Siems enjoyed watching the
puppies, learning about the Guide Dog Foundation and later getting the chance to interact with them. They said they are big animal lovers and as members of AHRC Suffolk’s self-advocacy group, recently collected food, blankets and beds for the animals at the Smithtown Animal Shelter.

“I thought it was wonderful, I really did,” Siems said of the event. “I’ve had dogs all my life and I would love to take one home — I love them. We wanted to help the animals this year. We collected dog bones and some things for the cats, too, and we want to continue doing this for the summer.”

Inviting the Guide Dog Foundation felt like a natural tie-in, Costa said. It was an educational, interactive and engaging experience for everyone.

“We serve a different population of individuals with disabilities,” she said. “We thought that this would be a nice partnership between both organizations, so that we could build awareness for the great work that each organization is doing — and everybody loves puppies. It was a successful and productive partnership for all.”

Summer kicks off in Shoreham with a scenic stroll through the five senses.

After two years of planning and construction, a new, community-built sensory garden at the Shoreham facility of Suffolk County’s Association for Habilitation and Residential Care, a non-profit that assists people with special needs and disabilities, officially opened to the public May 24.

What was once an underdeveloped stretch of woods and concrete is now a vibrant haven where visitors of all ages and abilities can excite their sight, smell, touch, taste and sound through various interactive materials and installations donated and put in by dozens of businesses and organizations. Local Girl and Boy Scout troops also volunteered throughout the past year to make the dream project a reality.

It was a dream that came from a passionate AHRC employee.

Christine Gallo, who serves as a behavior intervention specialist at the organization’s Intermediate Care Facility at 283 Route 25A in Shoreham, said ever since she started working there, she’d dreamt about utilizing the location’s natural resources to help the 96 people living on campus — many of whom deal with sensory-processing disorders, in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to what comes in through the senses.

While a number of AHRC locations are sensory-based, all of them are indoors.

“I thought, ‘wouldn’t that be great to bring all the science and knowledge we’re so good at at AHRC outside?’ because nature impacts the residents greatly,” said Gallo, who went on to research other sensory gardens throughout Long Island and the world and combined the best aspects of them when it came to designing her own.

She brought the idea to the higher-ups, including the facility’s director, Linda Bruno, and director of development, J Andreassi, who started a donation process and reached out to companies, architects, engineers, contractors and suppliers about pitching in. Island Steel & Detailing Corp. in Manorville, Precision Tree Services in Ronkonkoma, Shoreham-Wading River Teacher’s Association, the Riverhead Central Faculty and Reliable Garden & Fence Co. in Middle Island are among the participating companies that donated, cleared the area, set up fences, gardened, mulched and made installations.

The total project cost approximately $315,000, according to Andreassi.

“It was amazing the amount of people that it took to get this job done, but it was so worthwhile and it’s only going to get better,” he said. “Next year, that garden is going to be so lush and beautiful.”

Upon entering the expansive, oval-shaped garden, which is broken into different areas according to the senses, visitors can use a mallet to bang on big plastic drums and rainbow xylophones in the sound section. Along the decorated pathway, visitors pass wheelchair-accessible garden beds filled with vegetables for picking and eating and herbs scientifically-proven to aid with memory and concentration, a large-scale checkerboard on the lawn, a quiet sitting area to accommodate those who might be hyper-sensitive, and a barefoot labyrinth made up of river rocks.

“People can take off their shoes and just walk through, [like reflexology],” Gallo said. “It’s my favorite area.”

Gallo is hoping the new garden can further help with the sensory and developmental process.

“I just want it to become a meaningful, beautiful place for people to go,” she said. “But also where clinicians and specialists and training staff can use these really amazing features.”

Gallo said members of the Girl and Boy Scouts were involved in plant research and even building some of the structures, like the sensory wheel, which is filled with rocks of varying textures people can touch and spin. The wheel, she said, is designed for those in wheelchairs who can’t utilize the sensory input from the labyrinth.

She and Bruno hope to eventually host school and camp field trips, as well as community gatherings, at the garden.

“So far, every individual who we’ve brought through there has loved every aspect of it,” Bruno said. “It’s a peaceful place — it’s really magical. I think it’s exciting to be living and working out here, and to see something positive happening, and people contributing from the community.”

When asked how it felt to be standing in the garden of her dreams, Gallo said, “When I think about this piece of land, although it may seem like a small part of the world, it’s really monumental in how it can change people’s lives and be a place for the community to come.”

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