Like most 9-year-olds, Bryce DePalma was most interested in what came after the speeches at the ribbon cutting Thursday at the Sargent Rehabilitation Center.
It was for the playground that he and other students watched being built over the last several months. Now it was finished, and it looked beautiful. More than that, it looked like fun.
That’s what Bryce’s parents, William and Sharon DePalma, like about the Sargent Center. Bryce is happy at the center. He’s having fun and, more importantly, he’s making greater progress than they believed possible, had he stayed in the North Providence School system.
But Sharon is careful when she talks about North Providence. They really cared and tried to do everything they could to help Bryce, whose disabilities became evident when he was 18 months. His speech wasn’t developing. He underwent multiple tests. He entered the school system’s early intervention program at 3 years old.
“He would open his mouth and nothing would come out,” said Sharon.
On Thursday, more than 150 people gathered in the shade of a tent to celebrate the opening of a $200,000 state-of-the-art ADA approved certified green playground-recreation/sensory-reflection garden.
Noting that the playground was completed on time, under budget and is fully paid off, Mayor Scott Avedisian commended the center.
“There are not many non-profits talking about expansion,” he said, adding the center is “expanding services when most are trying to hold the line.”
Daniel Flaherty, board member and father of a day care student, talked about those who had worked hard to make the playground a reality.
Sargent Center CEO and President Marilyn F. Serra presided over the event like a proud mother hen and spoke about the “dream team” that pulled everything together.
Primary funders include The Champlin Foundations, the June Rockwell Levy Foundation, The Fogarty Foundation, Ocean State Charities and Rhode Island Legislature, in addition to the center’s own capital fund drive.
The playground, recreation area and sensory reflection garden has its traditional slides, see-saw, basketball hoop, cushioned court, in addition to water spouts and raised gardens, where students are encouraged to touch the plants. It is designed for students aged 3 to 21 with severe sensory and motor disabilities.
When it came to the monkey bars, Bryce was anything but impaired. He swung from bar to bar and then hung upside down for his parents amusement.
“I see a child that is happy,” Sharon said. “He’s getting what he needs academically, emotionally and physically.”
She said the team at Sargent “customizes” programs to fit the needs of an individual. In particular, she noted the work of speech therapists and how they have drafted a program for Bryce that is at his level, yet still challenging to him. She doesn’t believe public schools – because of larger and more diverse populations – could offer such individualized attention.
Founded in 1917, the Sargent Center specializes in providing rehabilitation and education services to children and adults with traumatic brain injury and stroke. They also treat autism spectrum disorders, complicated learning disorders and other neurological disorders to provide skills for a productive life. The center serves more than 1,500 individuals and families throughout Rhode Island and surrounding states.
“The people [at Sargent] are amazing,” says William. “This is such a collaborative effort.”
The decision to take Bryce out of the public system was reached after consulting with the public system itself.
“The school system doesn’t rehabilitate … it’s a different mindset [here]” said Sharon.
She said some of the things Bryce’s speech therapists do are so “out of the box” that she finds herself “giggling” with hope for her son’s future.
Sharon and William meet at least every six weeks with Sargent staff members to review their son’s development. They review videos of his in-class performance and consider recommendations as to how they could enhance his progress.
As a special education student, North Providence pays the cost of sending Bryce to Sargent.
“He comes home happy and tired,” Sharon says of Bryce.
What does she see for Bryce?
“I believe he’ll be a fully functioning adult,” she answers.
Undaunted by the monkey bars, Bryce was ready to move on to the next feature of the playground. He had plenty of company. Other center students and their parents were reveling in the improvements.
Bryce gave fellow students and faculty high fives. And, most gratifying to his parents, he was articulating his excitement.
“You’ve got to try the monkey bars; they’re great,” he said.