For adult transition students with special needs, a special delivery offers respite from the stress of remote learning

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This article was published on the Chicago Tribune by Janice Neumann on February 17, 2021.

A box filled with water beads, a retractable ball and other sensory items came at just the right time for Chance Moragne, a 21-year-old student with autism.

Moragne, like his fellow students in the Adult Transition Program in Oak Lawn-based Community High School District 218, was stuck at home because of the pandemic and missing a daily routine filled with cues from his teacher and a room stocked with comforting, interactive objects.

Wanda Moragne, his mom, said the box of gifts from special education teacher Jennifer Connelly and generous donors, made all the difference.

“The water beads are his favorite,” said Moragne. “He will get the container himself, usually 2-4 times per month, and in his bedroom enjoy it alone or while watching television.

“This gives him both enjoyment, relaxation, and sometimes I get in on the fun and we can talk,” said Moragne.

His mom said the items were calming to her son and reassuring to her as a single parent with an only child.

“The pandemic has made a bad situation worse for special needs adults,” Moragne said. “Receiving this box from his teacher, Ms. Jennifer Connelly, was so thoughtful during the hard times of remote learning.”

Connelly, who has taught in the district’s program for 22 years, said she already knew the sensory tools were important because they helped her students chill and focus. During school, she could offer them the program’s “sensory room” but she worried about their isolation at home.

The school sensory room has a wealth of comforting items, including water walls, beanbag chairs, aromatherapy and music, cyber optic light sprays, and weighted blankets.

Connelly wanted to recreate their sensory haven as best she could in their homes while involving the community in the project. She put the word out on Donors Choose and on Amazon and received items from Lakeshore Learning in Orland Park thanks to a donation from Allstate Insurance, as well as from community members who purchased items from an online wish list.

School District 218 also is participating, contributing other items to the boxes, said Kerri Piscitelli, the district’s director of special education.

Staff members delivered the boxes filled with the water beads, weighted blankets, stress balls, fidget spinners, aroma therapy putty and more to students.

Connelly said the boxes are a good compliment to the computers students rely on for remote education.

“Looking at a computer screen causes a lot of anxiety,” she said. “It was nice for them to have these items at home to use in order to help regulate themselves and calm down.”

There was also a benefit to parents.

“The parents, God bless them, having a child at home all the time … The kids don’t like change,” Connelly said. “Their behaviors may escalate and I knew so many parents were having a hard time.

“It was just a way to make it easier.”

For Jereomy McIntyre, 21, the gift was like a Christmas present.

“If he’s working on one of the website homework sites and maybe it got to be too much, we could pull the box out, take a break, play with the water beads, look at the lava lamp, just to kind of do something different,” said Elaine McIntyre, his mom. “It’s just a way of regrouping if he’s getting frustrated with something, he can take a little sensory break and get back to it.”

Both Moragne and McIntyre said the adult learning program had made a world of difference to their sons. Students learn daily living skills, including cooking, going out in the community, communicating with people around them, answering questions, all to help them become more independent.

Connelly, the teacher, has a knack for finding creative ways to engage the kids, while tuning in to each individual’s needs, they said.

“With Jereomy, he’ll say different things, put a whole stream of words together, and she knows what it is he is saying,” said McIntyre.

“The adult transition program has been a lifesaver for getting Chance through the beginning of his manhood,” added Moragne.

Janice Neumann is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.