A beautiful mural draws the eye to one wall. Brightly colored interlocking foam pieces provide a soft floor underfoot, while bean bag chairs scattered through the room invite students to settle in and take a break from the traditional classroom seating they spend time in throughout the day.

The sensory room at Floyd C. Fretz Middle School has various methods of lighting that allow the main overhead lights to be turned off. Stars are projected on the ceiling, while a bubble tube lamp engages students on a level closer to the floor. A hanging light with various tendrils creates a calming waterfall effect in the corner.

This room got an extensive makeover recently, thanks to the hard work and generous contributions from the family of Bradford Area School District student Matthew Whelan: his father, Tom Whelan, and his mother and stepfather, Susan Whelan-Bruno and David Bruno. BASD Director of Special Education Jennifer Morgan was also part of the process, from the original discussion with Whelan-Bruno through two work-days set aside for cleaning and room prep to various times when additions were made as time allowed.

The entire project covered a span of four months. The idea came to life in the spring when Whelan-Bruno took a tour of Fretz in preparation for Matthew’s transition from School Street Elementary to Fretz for the 2019-20 school year. Matthew was born with spina bifida and travels the hallways in a wheelchair. He requires time to process and has various sensory items at home in a sunroom intended to allow for either a calming atmosphere or a stimulating environment.

“I’ve always been open to sensory learning,” Whelan-Bruno explained. “I think that if you are learning about something, for example, an apple, and learning about the color red, it helps to have the apple in front of you.”

All four BASD school buildings (George G. Blaisdell Elementary, School Street Elementary, Fretz and Bradford Area High School) have sensory rooms. Morgan explained that the high school was the last to have a sensory room created, and that was four to five years ago. However, with budget constraints, new items are added to one room a year with consideration to the room where items are needed most.

“When I visited the room, there was a desk in here and not a lot going on,” Whelan-Bruno explained. “I wanted to give it something more.”

Whelan-Bruno was inspired to incorporate elements that would benefit all students who would visit the sensory room.

For example, the activity wall, installed along one wall, was crafted by a gentleman in the Ukraine, and the piece is done in pastels because children with autism prefer pastels. Meanwhile, the room is outfitted with a sound machine, which can play various calming sounds, and is also outfitted with various handheld fidget items, from soft yarn balls to glitter-filled clear wands and lava-inspired motion bubblers that fit in the palm of a student’s hand.

The room can be utilized in two ways: to help a student calm from overstimulation or to stimulate those who need more elements to encourage engagement.

During a visit Friday, two students joined Matthew in enjoying the lights. One student prefers to sit in a bean bag chair near the bubble tube lamp, while another enjoys using the room with the overhead lights off so the various alternate lighting elements can be enjoyed.

Miss Frederick, one of the teachers who works with students who have sensory breaks built into their daily schedules, noted that the students have shown significant improvements in their ability to sit in the seat and focus in the classroom after they spend time in the sensory room.

Morgan explained that between 15 and 20 students are utilizing the room this school year, based on their needs.

Fretz also has a therapy room, where students who require it receive physical and occupational therapy. This room has also been outfitted with an invigorating mural of an ocean at sunrise, lights, a sound machine and a bluetooth speaker that allows therapists to play the students’ favorite music during a session.

Both murals were hung on panels, allowing them to be moved in the future if the need arises.

“We are very grateful for the generous donation,” Morgan said. “We truly appreciate these items and the positive benefits they provide for our students.”