A ‘Calming Oasis’ During a Difficult Time

While dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for everyone, it’s especially challenging for people with intellectual disabilities and for those on the autism spectrum to navigate their daily life and routine. Since the mandatory closure of schools, day habilitation, and prevocational programs went into effect in New York City in March, along with restrictions on visitors and participation in community activities, Birch Family Services residential staff have had their hands full making sure that everyone they support remains engaged, calm, and safe during this difficult time.

Luckily, the building that houses our Children Residential Project (CRP) in Brooklyn has a backyard. In the past, the small outdoor space at the back of the building didn’t get much attention aside from some grilling and a few occasional activities. After all, the young adults, many of whom attend our Phyllis L. Susser School for Special Exceptional Children in Queens or attend day habilitation programs are busy enough already. Their days are filled with classes or off-site vocational activities — or both — and there just isn’t a lot of down time at home. Well, with the coronavirus, that all changed.

CRP Residential Manager Sharon Budoff knew that she needed to look within the residence to keep everyone safe, engaged and re-establish a daily routine. Suddenly, the backyard that had been taken for granted before the pandemic became essential to daily life at the residence. Staff organized a trip to the local Home Depot to pick up gardening supplies and outdoor furniture to spruce up the neglected space. Residents of the program took part in choosing the plants and planted them in the yard themselves and now share daily responsibility in making sure the plantings are properly watered and cared for. As the yard was transformed into a more inviting space, much of their days have moved outside, with activities that include weekly barbecues and playing board games on the deck furniture — even homework is being completed outside. Everyone loves seeing the fruits of their labor in the plants and flowers that our blossoming and the warm, inviting space that the backyard has become.

“The backyard has provided a calming oasis for our residents in this time of stress and unknown,” said Budoff. “They’ve been able to enjoy the outdoors as well as creating their own space by planting shrubs and seeds and watching their creations grow.”

The confinement has also brought the residents closer together and have encouraged social relations among those who already face challenges developing social relationships. While the pandemic continues, staff and residents are now working on purchasing a basketball hoop for the yard to help pass the long summer days ahead.