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.”