Nonprofit sets its sights on sensory room at OES elementary

All My Friends will create space at school where children facing challenges can calm down, refocus


Ozaukee Press staff

All My Friends Inc., which spent seven years creating an accessible playground in Grafton’s Centennial Park, is taking on a new set of challenges.

This time, the organization is working to create sensory rooms and backpacks to help youngsters who are overstimulated and need a break to calm down.

The organization has already created one room for Balance Inc. and is working to create a second one at Ozaukee Elementary School in Fredonia.

It is also working to provide sensory backpacks for emergency workers, such as police officers, emergency medical technicians and firefighters, who may encounter youngsters who are overwhelmed by stress, All My Friends co-founder and President Dianne Helmer said.

“When the playground was finished, we said ‘We need a break,’” Helmer said. “We’re a small nonprofit, and that was a big undertaking. We needed to work on something a little smaller.”

That something smaller were sensory rooms, which cost about $7,500 each to create.

Sensory rooms are a place with equipment that provide children with special needs, including those with learning difficulties, developmental disabilities and sensory impairments, a place to calm and focus themselves.

These rooms have special lighting, paint, blankets and other items to provide a safe environment for these youngsters, Helmer said.

Sensory rooms are becoming more common, Helmer added.

“Airports are even implementing these rooms,” she noted.

After completing the sensory room at Balance, Helmer said, the organization approached the Northern Ozaukee School District about creating one there.

After getting approval from the school board, it was full speed ahead, she said.

The room has been emptied, she said, and the district and All My Friends have worked to order items to furnish it.

“We’re hoping to start work over spring break,” she said, adding the room will be up and running later this year.

Ozaukee Elementary School Principal Lynn Kucharski said district officials are excited about the room.

“It’s fabulous. We’re very fortunate Dianne reached out to us,” she said, noting it will be available not just to students but staff members who need a break as well.

“Sometimes you just need to have your own space where you can take a breath in a calm setting, she said.

Sensory rooms are catching on in education, Kucharski said, noting that many teachers have an area of the classroom dedicated to this purpose.

“We do a lot of work with our students so they know if’s OK to say I need a break,” she said. “We really work with them to recognize when they need one.”

Students can seek a break on their own or a staff member may suggest one, Kucharski said.

Kucharski said the district needs to come up with some rules about the sensory room and its use — for example, the length of time people can use it — and educate students and staff about them before the room is used.

The sensory backpack project, called Kits for Kids, launched last weekend at the All My Friends’ Casino Night.

These kits include items such as communication boards, flash cards, noise canceling headphones, sunglasses, fidget toys, a stress ball, teddy bear and other items,  as well as tips on how to deal with children with special needs.

“The noise and the sirens and lights along with everything that’s going on can overwhelm children,” Helmer said.

The communication boards and flash cards in particular can give emergency responders a way to communicate with these children and help soothe them.

The Cedarburg Police Department has already requested 10 of the kits, which cost about $86, Helmer said.

All My Friends was started in 2011 by Helmer and two friends who were brainstorming ways to send children with special needs to camp.

The organization got its nonprofit status in 2012, and has provided scholarships to send 48 children to camp so far.

In 2015, the organization “dreamed bigger,” Helmer said, and set its sights on creating a playground at Grafton’s Centennial Park that would be accessible to children of all abilities.

It took a lot of hard work, but that project was completed last year, Helmer said.

The playground project, she said, put the organization on the map.

“I feel like that proved to people we can get things done,” Helmer said. “People know when we say we’ll do something, we mean it.”



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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