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South Hills

Newly remodeled sensory rooms provide calm space for students

| Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, 1:15 p.m.
The sensory room inside Paynter Elementary School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District.
Stephanie Hacke | For the Tribune-Review
The sensory room inside Paynter Elementary School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District.

A few rooms in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District were created with calm in mind.

No matter the student’s need for sensory input — whether they have autism, struggle with mental health or just need a soothing space — there’s something for everyone in the newly-remodeled sensory rooms. There are stress balls for students to squeeze, rice tables for them to run their hands through, a tent for them to hide away in and a swing where they can sway. Squares of turf-like carpet offer a soft spot to sit, and bubbling plastic fish tanks are pleasing to the eye.

“Really any student could benefit from this space,” said Marissa Gallagher, supervisor of pupil services.

Charter Homes of Lancaster selected the district as the recipient of its annual Making a Difference Project for 2018. While the district already had sensory rooms in its three elementary schools, they were “lackluster,” Gallagher said.

On Oct. 26, Charter Homes brought 18 people to Paynter, Whitehall and McAnnulty elementary schools to transform the rooms into something special.

“Our hope is the that the space really allows the children that utilize the room to reach their full potential,” said Lindsey Gallagher, Charter Homes neighborhood sales manager, and Marissa’s sister.

Lindsey Gallagher knew of the work Baldwin-Whitehall was doing with the special needs students and, having organized the give-back day each year, saw it as an opportunity to help meet their needs.

Crews painted walls, put down new carpet and gave the district $10,000 in Amazon credit to spend on the rooms.

“It was like the best day ever,” said Marissa Gallagher.

Paynter serves as the district’s regional center for elementary autistic support and Life Skills programs. Whitehall Elementary is the district’s elementary regional hub for its emotional support program.

Students in those programs, along with those in the district’s large refugee population, as well as mainstream students all use the rooms, Marissa Gallagher said.

The seven students in the autistic support class at Paynter use the school’s sensory room at least once a day for 15 minutes.

Paraprofessionals in the district were nearly brought to tears when they saw the new room, said Anna Geisler, special education teacher.

“They’ve wanted something like this for our kids for so long,” Geisler said.

As one of the rooms was being finished, a student with autism who has language impairments walked by, paused to peek inside, and said, “It’s beautiful.”

For Marissa Gallagher, hearing a student who hardly speaks make such a comment was incredible.

“It’s sort of amazing to witness the kids coming in here,” she said. “It’s an immediate calming.”

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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