The grand opening is still a week off, but small miracles have already occurred at Charlotte’s new Multi-Sensory Environment Room for children with disabilities.
In one case, a 3-year-old girl who had difficulty standing for even 10 seconds – with help from a therapist – surprised the staff by staying balanced for two minutes. Another boy entered with problems holding his head up and left sitting straight in his wheelchair.
All benefited from an unusual facility where sights, sounds and feelings are used to strengthen the brain in disabled children who can be easily overwhelmed by a “sensory traffic jam.”
The Multi-Sensory Environment Room, on Marsh Road near South End, is the first of its kind on the East Coast to be opened to all disabled children in the community, officials said.
Charlotte’s Easter Seals United Cerebral Palsy Children’s Center, which built the site with donated money, predicts as many as 300 children will be helped in the first year.
“The room is like being in a place where everything is in slow motion,” said Eric Bryant, a physical therapist assistant at the center. “By slowing things down, we let kids step outside the boundaries that restrict them and focus on one thing at a time.”
Betsy Dailey, Easter Seals UCP community director, said overwhelming need sparked the decision to open the room to the public.
Experts say one of every six children experience sensory symptoms that slow down their development. The new room is a cutting-edge way to tackle that problem, she said.
“For children with sensory issues, taste, touch or hearing can grate on their nerves like nails on a chalkboard,” said Dailey.
“I know of cases where the sound of a lawn mower can send a child into a seizure … The world, for these children, is an awful place. And this room is a chance for them to better deal with it.”
The room is best described as hypnotic, with lighting that alternates from dim to bright fluorescent colors. It also has bubbles, mirrors and lighted fiber-optic cords. The heavily cushioned furniture is all white, including a water bed (for balance) and a bench that has music speakers embedded in it (to create vibrations).
The overall effect is soothing to the children as they work with therapists, officials say.
Physician sparked local effort
Similar multi-sensory rooms can be found across the country, but the idea to open one in Charlotte began with Dr. James McDeavitt of Carolinas Medical Center.
Richard Worrell, an advocate for Charlotte’s Easter Seals center, took McDeavitt’s suggestion and led a campaign to raise $250,000 that ended up collecting $398,000.
Much of the extra money will go to scholarships to help cover the staff cost of low-income families bringing their children to the room, Dailey said.
Donors included the Leon Levine Foundation, Hendrick BMW, Carolinas Healthcare Foundation and the Sisters of Mercy of North Carolina.
The largest donation was $150,000, a dual gift from the Doyle Yager family of Fort Mill, S.C., and Amway. As a result, the room is to be named the “Yager Group Multi-Sensory Environment.”
Worrell said he was inspired to take on the campaign in part because his own son, 7-year-old Rich, made great strides in dealing with cerebral palsy while at the Easter Seals center.
The campaign kicked off with the help of a $25,000 community service grant from Worrell’s employer, Northwestern Mutual Financial. In addition, 40 employees of the company contributed, making up half the 80 donors to the project.
He expects the multi-sensory room will change lives among the community’s special needs children and their parents, who he says often don’t know where to turn for help.
“Small miracles are what happen at this center every day,” said Worrell.
“Our son literally stood up here for the first time. He took his first step here. He watched other kids eat and ate for the first time without a tube. It was a cheese stick. Small miracles.”