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Psychedelic Learning

St. Joseph's Villa uses a small grant for disabled children in a most unexpected way.

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This is some funky pad, but you won't find college kids partying here. The room's designed for a different kind of student — children with developmental disabilities such as mental retardation, brain damage or autism.



A visitor may look at the "tactile board" with dangling chains and textured cloths, the malleable goop and metal Slinkies and see only toys. But for disabled children, each touchable element is a subtle lesson in such things as cause and effect, hand-eye coordination, even self-expression, Bridget Baldwin says.



Baldwin is the co-director of the Respite Care Center at St. Joseph's Villa on Brook Road, which provides care for disabled children in afternoon programs, on weekends and during the summer.



Finding ways to motivate and teach the center's 100 clients, ages 5 to 22, is a challenge, Baldwin says. Left to themselves, some will even hit themselves or bang their heads against walls because of their desire for stimulation. Hence the multisensory room, completed recently with a $5,000 grant from Knights of Virginia Assistance for the Retarded, a charity run by the Knights of Columbus.



The most basic sensory room startup kits advertised in industry catalogs cost $5,000, plus an extra $2,000 to $4,000 for a tactile board, Baldwin says — hardly priced for a nonprofit organization. So the staff got creative. Counselors built their own tactile board from a sheet of plywood, and Baldwin hit sales at the novelty store Spencer's Gifts for the lamps and gadgets.



Rachel Mertz, public-relations and marketing director at St. Joseph's, says that this type of multisensory room, designed to build the mind more than muscles, is the only one she knows of in the area.



Since the room is so new, Baldwin says, only a few kids have been inside (always supervised by at least one staff member). The door's supposed to be kept locked, but recently a boy found it open and wandered in, Baldwin says. Staff quickly retrieved him, but he was thrilled to have caught a sneak peek, she says. "He would not stop," Baldwin says, chuckling. "He just kept going on: 'That room is so cool. That room is so cool.'" S





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