Art students at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst recently turned a cluttered storage closet into a Wellness Room for their peers in the Life Skills special education program.
“During Covid, it was very tough for our kids with disabilities, because their regular routine was completely turned upside down,” Lawrence High art teacher Robert Verone said. So studio art and advanced sculpture students decided to create a space for students having difficulties readjusting to in-person school.
In the middle of the school year, Verone’s advanced sculpture students were having trouble completing their projects, with clay not taking form as they planned or blowing up in the kiln. The idea of a Wellness Room had already come up, but it was clear to everyone in March that it was time to start working on it, and take on something new.
The art students knew they wanted to help their peers in the Life Skills program, whom they had seen struggling to readjust. “I mean, with the whole culture — the whole fabric of this school knows our kids with special needs,” Verone said. “That’s something that’s very unique about Lawrence.”
“They created this room,” Assistant Principal Kathleen Stanley said, “for the Life Skills students to come in when one of the students needs to be changed or students need to just decompress if they’re having a difficult time.”
“We did what’s called a site-specific sculpture,” Verone explained. “We actually took this space, which was a closet, and recreated it into a working space.”
The first step was a complete “rip-out job,” he said, of the closet, which is near the sculpture room. “The first period of the studio class,” made up of 20 students, “spent about three weeks on it,” Verone said, “and they did all the prep work.”
Once overhead lighting was added by workers from outside the school, all 11 advanced sculpture students worked to refinish the space, learning skills such as priming, painting and installing a rug in the process.
“It’s great life experience [for] when you get your own place — your first place — and you have to decorate it all and you don’t even know where to start,” Stanley said. “Now you have this experience.”
The closet had no windows. “So we’re like, how are we going to make this place inviting?” Verone said. The students took the closet’s heavy door off its hinges and brought it back to the sculpture room to cut a circular window opening at the top of it, repurposed a Plexiglas divider from the pandemic as a window pane, and decorated around the window with stained-wood blocks.
They used more Plexiglas to cover the new overhead lighting. The girls in the sculpture class chose a pattern — blue skies with white clouds — to print onto translucent paper, making the lights look like three heavenly skylights.
The walls, ceilings and some of the furniture were painted in calming colors, and to add to the atmosphere, the students decided that the theme of the room would be nature.
The total cost of the work — not including the lighting job — was less than $800, and most of that went toward two new televisions, used for listening to calming music or watching nature programs.
The furniture in the room was repurposed or donated. Students painted one of the tables in calming colors to match the walls. There is also a large whiteboard with dry-erase markers, and a projector.
The students emailed the local Target, asking for donations, and the store donated two beanbag chairs for the room.
“That was a big deal — to get something for nothing,” Verone said. “It’s about the [Life Skills] kids, and it’s about creating something for them that they’re going to use every day, and it’s got to be positive. You can’t just say, can I have $200? That’s not going to work. You have to give the objective of what you’re doing, how you’re going to do it, how you want [the donation] to be used [and] how their product is going to be showcased.”
“The interdisciplinary approach to the room — it’s so great that you had that experience,” Stanley told the students, from working as a team in a small space to approaching the retailer.
Since the project was completed in late April, the Life Skills students have made good use of the room, and the Lawrence administration is considering creating another supervised Wellness Room for all students.
“I think we’re all aware, as young people and as educators, that there’s an increase in suicide,” Stanley said. “Students requesting help from mental health professionals has increased tremendously, and we want to try to be responsive to that. We want to try to make sure that students know that we’re here to create a positive environment and that there are people here to listen and to reach out to. That takes place in so many ways — in creating a room like [the Wellness Room] and creating relationships.”
Sophomore Marilyn Cifuentes, an advanced sculpture student, said that another room like the one she helped create could be helpful to general-education students.
At home, she said, “I don’t have my own room — I share with my brother — and my house is really small. I don’t really get a lot of ‘me’ time.” Cifuentes added that when she is going through something difficult, “I don’t really reach out to anybody.
“I’m not going to cry in front of my family,” she said. “To get a room like that would be nice — to have a room to yourself.”
While the first Wellness Room “pilots,” Stanley said, “There’s a lot to work out to make sure that [another room] is safe for students — to make sure that it doesn’t interfere with instruction, but it enhances instruction.”