GOSHEN — Plans are currently in the works for the development of a new sensory trail project for the city aimed at connecting people with disabilities to the health benefits of nature.
During a virtual meeting Monday morning, officials with the Goshen Department of Environmental Resilience announced they’ll be partnering with ADEC Inc. in applying for a $200,000 Community Connections for People with Disabilities Grant, which is offered through the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs in partnership with the Indiana Division of Disability and Rehabilitative Services.
ADEC Inc. is a local nonprofit organization that advocates for and serves people with developmental and intellectual disabilities in Elkhart and St. Joseph counties.
“The Community Connections for People With Disabilities Grant is an opportunity that encourages local units of government to develop innovative technology strategies and cultivate strong community partnerships to address the negative social, economic and health effects of COVID-19 on Hoosiers with disabilities, and to increase community and workplace inclusion for this population,” said Theresa Sailor, grant writer and educator with the Department of Environmental Resilience. “Our proposal will look to help with social isolation and lost access to natural supports.”
According to Michelle McGuin, vice president of Non-Residential Operations for ADEC Inc., should the grant application ultimately prove successful, the received funding will in turn be used to create a new sensory trail for the city designed specifically to benefit adults with disabilities.
“We are honored to be part of this project,” McGuin added of the partnership. “Social isolation for those individuals with disabilities has been a hug barrier, as everyone knows, through the pandemic. … This is a huge project that we’re hoping comes to fruition so that we can get our individuals with disabilities into the parks, and get connected with nature, and increase their sensory and improve their mental status, as well as any physical along with that.”
HOST OF BENEFITS
According to Aaron Sawatsky Kingsley, director of the Department of Environmental Resilience, sensory trails are built to offer a series of experiences along a route designed for users to engage with their different senses. Varied surfaces and stations housing different smells and sounds are features of sensory trails.
“From a stroll through a city park to a day spent hiking in the wilderness, exposure to nature has been linked to a host of benefits. Some of those include improved attention, lowered stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders, and increased empathy and cooperation,” Sawatsky Kingsley said in speaking to the need for such a trail. “Most research so far has focused on green spaces, such as parks and forests. Researchers are now also beginning to study the benefits of blue spaces — places with river and ocean views, or lakes and ponds, things like that. So, we want to be cognizant of this important link between mental health and access to the natural world, both in sort of preserve spaces, but also even just access to backyards and those kinds of things.
“So, the goal of this project is to connect individuals with disabilities to the wonders of nature,” he added, “and to provide an outlet to nature that can improve physical and psychological wellbeing.”
According to Sawatsky Kingsley, the proposed project involves developing a GPS-enabled app accessed by a phone or tablet while on designated city trails to connect users to nature in a fully immersible sensory trail experience.
“The app will locate and identify unique natural features, pinpoint interactive spaces where individuals can participate in their sensory experience, and provide opportunities where users can select music to listen to, poetry, or learn historical information,” he said. “We certainly have in our focus people with disabilities, but we also recognize that this is an opportunity to serve the accessibility needs of all of us in the pandemic moment.”
Speaking to the proposed location of the new sensory trail project, Sawatsky Kingsley said the group is particularly interested in incorporating two specific sections of existing trail within Goshen.
One such section starts at the Shoup-Parsons Woods near the north end of the Goshen Dam Pond and continues north along the Goshen millrace to Lincoln Avenue and the old Powerhouse, just north of Shanklin Park.
“And then the other trail section would be from Oakridge Park on the northwest end of town over to Abshire Park on the northeast side of town,” he said. “So, those are the two trails that we would propose to develop some app technology for, that would allow these kinds of interactive experiences: interpretive, interactive and fully sensory kinds of experiences.”
In addition, Sawatsky Kingsley noted that the project also proposes to add online experiences, including stationary live nature cameras, to provide individuals who cannot participate on the trail with accessibility to the same mental health benefits of the sights and sounds of nature from their homes.
“We feel that those are important kinds of interactions that we can provide,” he said of the plan. “Locations may include behind the Rieth Interpretive Center, at Fidler Pond, and at a third (undecided) location.”
According to Sailor, word on whether or not the partnership has been awarded the grant is expected to be announced by the end of February.
Should the grant be awarded, additional opportunities for public comment on the particulars of the project will likely be held in the spring in the form of additional public meetings or focus groups, she explained.
“At that point, our plans would be a little more solidified so that you’d have maybe a little more input for very specific things, instead of the broad, general idea,” she said. “That would probably come in March.”
As for the project’s construction timeline, Sailor said the current plan would be to have the project completed in the fall of 2021.
“It would need to be completed for sure by the end of 2021,” she added. “The goal is six months, but they recognize that it could be six to nine months. But it absolutely would have to be finished by end of 2021.”
In the meantime, Sailor encouraged those with questions, suggestions or interest in participating in a focus group related to the project to either call the city’s main line at 574-533-8621, or contact her directly via email at [email protected].
“Please continue to share your comments with us in whatever form you feel most comfortable,” she said. “We would appreciate hearing them.”