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Park School Community Creates A Mural for All to Enjoy

Photo by Green Star Movement

Published in ChicagoNow, September 21, 2016

There is a building located at 828 Main Street in Evanston that many people used to pass by without recognizing it was a school. But now, an amazing mural catches their attention. The Park School community created the mural: Sixty students with significant special needs, their families, their teachers and support staff, and their friends and neighbors.

The mural dazzles, catching the sunlight and reflecting the power of community and caring. It is dedicated to the memory of beloved Park School social worker, Lisa Weiland O’Brien, who died in a car crash three years ago, along with her husband Sean. A young man driving under the influence tragically cut their lives short. But the Park School community wanted to fulfill Lisa’s vision for a mural that highlighted the values of Park School so her memory would live on.

Park School parent, Patti Rohwer, describes Park as first and foremost a school, part of the Evanston/Skokie District 65 system. It serves sixty students, ages 3 to 22, who need a self-contained educational facility for reasons of safety, health, and/or the need for an intensive therapeutic environment. Some, like her teenaged daughter who has attended classes there for thirteen years, are not verbal and use wheelchairs. Others are deaf or hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired, have moderate to profound intellectual disabilities, significant physical impairments, and/or autism.

Rohwer hopes the mural will help people to recognize that Park, like other schools in Evanston, is a place that educates the community’s children. They may be kids who have challenging learning, safety, and medical needs, but they are still our children. And for families like Patti’s, Park is “a very special place, a family. Kids like mine can’t tell their parents anything about their day at school. As a parent, I am so grateful to be part of a school that provides security, consistency, and a sense of belonging for my child.”

Iden Nowlin, teacher of preschoolers and deaf/hearing-impaired students at Park School, agrees with Patti’s description of Park as a place where the students and families feel a true sense of community they might not experience at mainstream schools. She took me on a tour of the building, explaining that for the children who attend Park, it is truly the least restrictive environment. They have peers who are actually friends and individualized education plans that are truly unique for every student.

As Nowlin and I walked the halls, I was struck by how the staff members knew all of the students, even those not in their own classrooms. Nowlin noted that there is very little staff turnover. The sense of closeness and pride in the well-planned environment was palpable. She showed me Katie’s Corner, an amazing Snoezelen sensory room built in 2008 from a $230,000 donation by talk show host Jerry Springer. Springer’s daughter, Katie, was born with physical disabilities and volunteered at the school. What an amazing experience for Park School students to use this room filled with interactive objects, including fiber-optic lights, kaleidoscope images, light-activated CD players and vibrating chairs.

We toured the life skills room and the workshop that teaches students skills they can use to find employment in the community. Park students are out and about, interacting with the nearby schools and businesses so students have the opportunity for inclusion with the typically developing age mates and in the greater Evanston community.

As a teacher of the youngest students, Nowlin experiences first-hand the difficult journey parents make in enrolling their children in a self-contained, therapeutic school. She helps them through emotions comparable to the stages of grief as they deal with the loss of the child they had hoped and dreamed of having. Parents often start this journey in denial and work their way through anger, bargaining, and depression before reaching acceptance of their child’s needs. For some students, Park School will educate them up to age 22. For others, Park will be a stepping-stone on their educational journey.

The mural dedicated to Lisa Weiland O’Brien, who helped countless children and families through their unique journeys at Park School, features a line from one of Lisa’s favorite children’s books, The Crayon Box That Talked.

We are a box of crayons, each one of us unique, but when we get together, the picture is complete.

The Park community, in collaboration with Green Star Movement, a Chicago-based not-for-profit that creates public art to inspire and revitalize urban schools, worked hard to design a mural for all to enjoy. It will soon by joined by a sensory garden. If you have the opportunity to drive, bike, or walk down Main Street in Evanston, please stop at Park School, 828 Main, to enjoy this beautiful mural.


by Laurie Levy
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