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Students get hands-on in Pioneer Education Center’s sensory garden

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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Cody Clegg, 13, (left) tries to identify an herb by its aroma. Suzanne Ambrose is the activities of daily living teacher at Pioneer Education Center in Pittsburgh. She and her students start seeds every year for the Sensory Garden at the school. To the right is Jordan Comans, who harvested peppers with Ambrose and was also enjoying the aromatic herbs.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Soft ornamental grasses adorn the Sensory Garden at Pioneer Education Center in Pittsburgh.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
The vine tunnel is one of the features in the Sensory Garden at Pioneer Education Center in Pittsburgh.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Russian sage is one of the plants in the Sensory Garden at Pioneer Education Center in Pittsburgh.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Suzanne Ambrose is the activities of daily living teacher at Pioneer Education Center in Pittsburgh. She and her students start seeds every year for the Sensory Garden at the school which was created by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Lamb’s ear plants are soft and fuzzy.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Jordan Comans picks a pepper from the at Pioneer Education Center in Pittsburgh. The garden was created by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Suzanne Ambrose is the activities of daily living teacher at Pioneer Education Center in Pittsburgh. She walks through the Sensory Garden at the school with Cody Clegg, 13, (right) and Jordan Comans.
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Doug Oster | Tribune-Review
Art DeMeo is director of community green space services for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy — community gardens and green space program. He worked on creating a Sensory Garden at Pioneer Education Center in Pittsburgh.

The soft plumes of tall, ornamental grass sway in the breeze in the Sensory Garden at Pioneer Education Center in the Brookline neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

The school was designed and built as a special education center. Many of its students are medically fragile with multiple disabilities.

The garden at Pioneer is one of three ADA-accessible gardens created by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Work for the garden at Pioneer started with a grant from the Grable Foundation, which funded the greening of all of the Pittsburgh Public Schools at the time. Each school had its own ideas, needs and individual issues for its landscape.

“We came to Pioneer and quickly realized it was a special situation with the unique students they have,” says Art DeMeo, director of community green space services for the conservancy’s community gardens and green space program.

Something for every one

DeMeo and his team worked with Marshall Tyler and Rausch, a landscape architecture firm, to come up with the garden’s design. It was the start of the WPC really examining accessibility in its gardens overall.

The garden uses special planters and benches, and it even includes swings that can be used by students in wheelchairs.

A vine tunnel is covered in green foliage. Fuzzy lamb’s ears are planted throughout the garden. A rock fountain, which bubbles from the center, is a big hit as it’s situated within reach of the students to feel the running water.

There are metal drums made of recycled propane containers students can play. A long solid path around the perimeter is used for walking, biking and wheelchairs.

“We tried to think of everything that would make a well-rounded experience for the kids,” DeMeo adds.

The other two gardens in the city were added to existing community gardens. One is in Homewood — funded by the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD), the City of Pittsburgh and the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. The other is in Shadyside — funded by RAD and UPMC.

The planters in those gardens are also specially designed for accessibility and constructed out of all-natural materials.

“It’s just amazing to watch those kids get their hands dirty,” DeMeo says with a smile.

WPC trucks are now also loaded with special gardening tools that allow disabled gardeners to participate in gardening activities. DeMeo is working on expanding the program to add more ADA-accessible gardens throughout the region.

Get outside

David Lott, Pioneer’s principal, is all smiles as he talks about how important the Sensory Garden is for the campus.

“The garden is something special for the students,” he says. “Everything has been designed to stimulate or relax students based on their individual needs. It allows them to experience nature.”

He enjoys knowing that many of his students will often look out the window at the garden, champing at the bit to enjoy the outdoor space.

He explains why the garden is special for the students: “Getting a chance to have the kids come out here, see them interact with nature and give them a chance to just be kids.”

The staff at the school enjoys the garden, too, often eating lunch amidst the landscape. When asked what is the most important aspect of the garden, Lott pauses and says, “The openness; we forget that our students don’t have all the unique opportunities other kids have. What kid doesn’t like going outside and enjoying nature?”

Suzanne Ambrose is the activities of daily living teacher at the school and begins the season by starting seeds indoors with her students.

Today she’s picking peppers with the help of students Cody Clegg and Jordan Comans. Many of her students can’t eat the culinary treats harvested from the garden, but there are other ways to enjoy the plants. Ambrose works her way over to another raised planter, picking different aromatic herbs and letting the students smell and identify them.

“The fun part for me,” she says , “is to be with them while they enjoy this area. I get to watch them experience and learn, hands on. They get to pick the cherry tomatoes and pop them right in their mouths.”

Many students don’t have access to a garden where they live, and that’s why Ambrose believes the garden is so significant.

“Every kid should have an outdoor living space,” she says. “Every kid should have the opportunity to see the trees turn colors, to grow vegetables; it’s a major part of life.”

For more information about the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy go to waterlandlife.org.

Article by Doug Oster,
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