Dec. 12, 2019-- Completing its tour of schools that earned the 2018 Model Classroom Grant, OceanFirst Foundation representatives visited East Dover Elementary Dec. 6 to see the school’s Sensory Zone.
The story of how the Sensory Zone came to be is a unique one. How so? Let’s just say it involves J-Woww of Jersey Shore fame. We’ll explain.
East Dover is a fully-inclusive school with 13 self-contained classrooms and a robust special education population. Principal Matt Gray has worked closely with special education teacher Peggy Kruger to maximize the school’s resources and consider its use of space, particularly as it relates to meeting the sensory needs of students. On his way home from work one day, Principal Gray heard an anecdote on the radio about how J-Woww-- real name Jennifer Farley-- had created a sensory room in her own home for her autistic child. Matt relayed this information to Peggy, who just happened to share a mutual friend with Jennifer.
Connections were made. The organization J-Woww worked with to design her space, KultureCity, was more than willing to work with East Dover and help fund a new model space. Meanwhile, Peggy and Matt were working alongside district representatives to design their application for a $10,000 Model Classroom Grant from OceanFirst Foundation, which ultimately ended up being a successful effort.
With multiple funding partners, a remarkably involved school community, and more than enough passion and drive, the Sensory Zone was born. The results of this all-hands-on-deck initiative are undeniable, and were on display Friday.
The intimate but terribly outdated and underutilized space has been completely transformed to better serve special needs students and the entire student body, not to mention staff members, who frequently stop in to recharge or unwind. A mini-entry serves as a de-escalation area. An East Dover teacher who is also an artist created beautiful, branching tree murals on the wall. The room is full of multi-sensory equipment, including warm gentle lighting that changes tone, a water tower, and an acoustic rocker (Principal Gray’s personal favorite).
The vision for the room was to provide a space for students to be themselves. That vision has been met, but for Ms. Kruger, the joy was in the journey.
“The process was the most touching thing for me,” said Peggy when speaking about how the school community rallied together to make this happen. And, like the tree art on the wall, the model of the Sensory Zone branched out into the community.
Popular Toms River restaurant Rivoli’s closed in 2016, but reopened as Riv’s Toms River Hub, and in the process introduced “Chase’s Friends Zone,” a sensory space for families with autistic and special needs children. The restaurant also worked with KultureCity and consulted with East Dover leaders while visualizing and designing the space.
“It’s a wonderful thing to watch the community take this idea and expand on it,” said Gray. "This is about serving children of all needs, and it's so important that these sensory initiatives become widespread and sustainable."
Representatives from OceanFirst Foundation and OceanFirst Bank who attended the unveiling included Executive Director Katherine Durante; Marketing Coordinator Stephanie Toal; Toms River Branch Manager William Powell; and OceanFirst Bank VP Jill Flynn. Photos from the event are below.