When the Sensory Courtyard opened in August 2015 inside of the Main Street Education and Administration Center, Mary Robinson knew that an important need was being fulfilled in Fremont and its surrounding communities.
Robinson, a teacher of the visually impaired for the Fremont Public School District and mastermind behind the concept of the Sensory Courtyard, orchestrated the opening of the approximately 2,400-square-foot complex with the goal of providing children – and some adults – an environment that stimulates and heightens the five senses of people who are visually impaired, deal with autism, have behavior problems or other impairments.
All five senses are incorporated into the Sensory Courtyard through a variety of stations intended to calm and relax occupants.
Through a $75,000 matching grant from the Lions Club International Foundation, the second floor of the Main Street Education and Administration Center was transformed into its own unique world.
Entering the Courtyard, attendees have the opportunity to maneuver around the Courtyard’s numerous displays, which include: a hobbit house, boulder with tree area, sensory table where children play with a variety of different objects, turtle garden with fossils, toadstool and swing area, a water wall and the Snoezelen Room.
One of the huge perks of the Sensory Courtyard, Robinson said during a Thursday interview with the Tribune, is that families don’t have to pay a single penny to use the facility – it’s all free of charge.
Anybody who wants to use the Sensory Courtyard or bring a child or family member simply needs to visit www.sensorycourtyard.com, click on the reservation tab, fill out some basic information and pick a date and time slot.
“It’s very simple, and we just want to know who is coming so we make sure we don’t overbook, and we also have people register for a time slot so that we can collect data so that we can get future grants,” Robinson said.
During the school year, the facility is manned by Robinson and other staff members, but come summer time there has been some difficulty in past years with finding the manpower to keep the Sensory Courtyard up and running for a meaningful period of time.
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In 2016, Robinson partnered with Mosaic in Northeast Nebraska, a faith-based organization that serves people with intellectual disabilities, in an effort to provide summertime hours while simultaneously helping those with intellectual disabilities learn real-world skills.
In summer 2016, Mosaic members volunteered their time for six hours weekly so community members could visit the Sensory Courtyard.
This summer, ENCOR and North Star Services — also groups serving those with disabilities — are donating their time and services in collaboration with Mosaic.
With the boost in volunteers, the Sensory Courtyard will be open for 25 hours weekly Monday through Friday. Nine volunteer hours are being provided by Mosaic, 10 by ENCOR and six by North Star Services.
“It’s absolutely huge, because it would just be sitting here dormant over the whole summer,” Robinson said of the importance of having summer volunteer help. “Thankfully, we have these groups that are willing to have this partnership with me and Fremont Public Schools – it’s a win-win for both of us. They (volunteers with disabilities) help us a ton, but they also get some life skills through the work they do here.”
Volunteers from all three organizations will serve as greeters when people enter the Sensory Courtyard. In addition, volunteers help with sanitizing equipment, sweeping and cleaning out the ball pit located in the Snoezelen Room, among other things.
“Welcoming people is a great social avenue for them as well,” she said of the volunteers. “They really have the chance to form connections with the people who are using the area … It’s also great for our community to really see that these people are part of our community, and that they really do a lot for all of us, and that it’s something we can be proud of.”
Summer hours for the Sensory Courtyard are: 8 a.m. through noon Monday, 10 a.m. through 3 p.m. Tuesday, 8 a.m. through 1 p.m. Wednesday, 10 a.m. through 3 p.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. through 1 p.m. Friday.
For more information, people are encouraged to visit www.sensorycourtyard.com.