The Comfort Corner at HGE is the Hillsborough County School District’s largest sensory room, thanks to the Sydney Has A Sister foundation.

For students who deal with sensory processing disorders such as autism, having a safe, comfortable space to calm down can make a difference in how successful that child is at school.

At Hunter’s Green Elementary (HGE), to meet this need, a brand new sensory room was unveiled on January 30. While a few other schools throughout Hillsborough County also have sensory rooms, the one at He is housed in a large classroom, making it the largest in the District.

Dubbed the “Comfort Corner” — with fabric softening the room’s lights and translucent curtains dividing it into many separate spaces — it doesn’t feel like a classroom. Filled with quiet areas with dark spaces, hanging hideaway chairs, and weighted blankets, as well as active areas with fidget toys and fine motor skills activities, the room meets the many varied needs of diverse students.

“Some kids with autism have a sensory overload,” explains Joni Cagle, HGE’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) teacher, “while others don’t get enough sensory input. We wanted a place for kids who have differences to feel safe and learn coping strategies to meet them where they are so we can help them to be successful at school.”

But, Joni is quick to add, “It’s not just for kids with labels.”

She says typical kids who get anxiety before a big test, for example, can come to the room and bounce on a ball for a few minutes to help reduce that anxiety.

David and Veronica Mardo have two kids at HGE, a daughter in third grade and a son with special needs in pre-Kindergarten.

“This will help my son for sure,” David says. “I think it’s great the school has something like this for him.”

To bring the Comfort Corner to the school, more than $8,000 worth of equipment – from bouncing balls to rope lights to a weighted blanket in the shape of a hamburger – was donated by a local foundation called Sydney Has A Sister, founded in 2014 by Ernie and Becky Black of Land O’Lakes.

Sydney Has A Sister was established to provide scholarships that recognize the sacrifices that typical children make when they have siblings with special needs, such as long hours in doctors’ waiting rooms.

It expanded its mission to help provide sensory rooms at schools after seeing one in Jacksonville.

“This is our fourth sensory room,” says Ernie. “Some other sensory rooms are a small room or even a longer hallway. The challenge is they don’t have enough space. This is what we envisioned. And, even though it’s large, we’ve created these nooks so it’s not as sterile and the space is intimate.”

He says every item chosen for the Hunter’s Green sensory room was intentional, based on the recommendations of specialists and what they have learned creating rooms at other schools.

“For example, the way the room has dividers,” explains Ernie. “There can be five kids in here that don’t feel like they’re in the same room. And, the curtains are transparent so the teachers can still supervise all of them.”

He and Veronica believe the Hunter’s Green Comfort Corner will be a model for future rooms.

“This is a place that gets kids geared up to learn and focus and gets them back into the classroom,” Ernie says. “That’s the whole point.”

He says that Sydney Has A Sister was able to fund the room through the generosity of its sponsors and fundraising events. 

In addition, a family at the school, who asked to not be named in this story, provided a donation to purchase additional needed furniture and supplies and ensure the ongoing success of the Comfort Corner. 

Joni says the total cost of the room is more than $10,000. The good news is that it’s already making a difference. 

“We’ve seen attention spans increase,” Joni says. “We’ve seen social skills increase. Fine motor skills. Gross motor skills. It really affects the whole child in a positive way.”

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