Sewanee students begin painting the New Life Sensory Room. Photos by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).
By Lucy Wimmer
Armed with ladders, paint rollers, and 2000s music blaring over the speakers, a group of student volunteers, led by Crystal Ngo (C’20) began the process of painting the New Life Sensory Room. New Life in Winchester is a non-profit organization that works to integrate adults with intellectual and physical disabilities into the community and improve their quality of life.
“The work that New Life does is insanely important and it targets a group that is often overlooked and forgotten,” Mate Szurop (C ’21), a volunteer working to make the sensory room a reality, said.
Ngo has been working with New Life since the end of her freshman year and, starting her sophomore year, has been the site leader for the Bonner New Life site. Her goal is to destigmatize disability, educate the community, and create connections between the adults at New Life and other organizations. Her junior year, Ngo realized she wanted to be doing more for New Life and asked the non-profit what they needed. What New Life needed was a sensory room.
“Sensory rooms are really beneficial to anyone with autism, or anyone with [heightened senses],” Ngo said. Gesturing to the loud conversations happening on the porch of Stirling’s, Ngo said, “These noises don’t bother us. But for someone who might have special needs, all of these senses are heightened. Sometimes at the center there are other adults who are yelling and screaming and distressed.” A sensory room will provide a space for individuals to be calm. “The whole thing is to decrease anxiety, [to create] a tranquil environment where [the adults] can escape for a second,” Ngo said.
Pictured: Crystal Ngo (C’20), who has served as the Bonner leader for New Life during her time at Sewanee.
Ngo started as the grant writer for this project, but has become a “co-author” alongside Vicki Winters, the supervisor at New Life. The room will include light projections, comfortable places to sit, aromatherapy, and a water fountain to create a calming auditory experience. While New Life received a grant to make this project a reality, local businesses and organizations have also been involved.
“I just love local communities so much,” Ngo said. “We have recliner chairs given to us by a really nice local furniture place. Sherwin Williams has donated things and have helped reduce paint cost, Facilities Management has let me use their discount, the theatre department gave us painting materials. Community engagement is real. I continue to have high faith in people. People are good.” Student volunteers have also been involved in the process.
“By being part of this project we have the chance to have a direct, lasting impact on these people’s lives and create something that they are going to benefit from for years,” Szurop said. “I personally really enjoy that I get to see how the entire project comes together little by little and that we can create something manually, all while teaching ourselves and each other in a really fun working environment.”
When asked her favorite part of working with New Life, Ngo’s face lit up. “ I am so happy about it I can’t even put it into words,” she started. “It’s the connections. It’s the jokes. Even in the simplest ways we communicate brings me joy. We don’t have to love through words. A lot of them don’t talk to me as much, but they’ll hold my hand. And I get it. That’s all you gotta say, that’s all you gotta do to show me we love each other.”
The sensory room will have its welcoming ceremony on December 12. New Life has volunteer opportunities on Tuesdays from 11-1 on campus. If you are interested in volunteering or donating, contact Crystal Ngo at email@example.com.