ELMHURST – Madison Early Childhood Center provides resources and education to Elmhurst preschoolers of all academic and physical abilities, but its courtyard garden wasn’t living up to the standards set by the rest of the school.
“There was a garden there, but it wasn’t level,” said Cathy D’Alessandro, founder of the current Madison PTA. “There was no wheelchair access.”
Fourteen months after D’Alessandro began seeking grant programs for a more accessible space that wouldn’t flood when it rained, crews broke ground last week for Madison’s new sensory garden and outdoor classroom, which will offer more than just pretty flowers and wheelchair ramps.
“It is basically separated into five classrooms,” D’Alessandro said. “The classrooms are [based around] each of the five senses.”
Initially, she tried partnering with College of DuPage’s horticultural program. The garden project didn’t fit into the curriculum, but the college agreed to pass on a letter from D’Alessandro to their alumni. One of them, Lynn Baralt, owner of Baralt Custom Landscaping, jumped on the project when she received the letter. Elmhurst resident Baralt and two other designers put together a plan for an interactive garden for all students.
“We wanted to create an environment where they could learn, because this was a school,” said Baralt
In addition to plants, each garden will include sense-specific features. The sight garden will include a wrought iron tree where teachers can hang different items for activities. The touch garden will have wine barrels full of textured items like sand and Mexican beach pebbles. A trickling fountain and wind chimes will fill the sound garden. The smell garden will include potent herbs like lemon thyme and even chocolate geraniums. Students will be able to plant their own veggies in the taste garden.
Even though D’Alessandro’s three children have all moved on from Madison, she feels a special connection to the school, staff and students. Two of her three children had special needs, but they all left Madison able to read and ready for kindergarten.
“I was just so grateful for everything they did for us,” she said about the preschool staff.
She’s determined to see the sensory garden through to the end. She’s already received grants for the project from CVS/Caremark, Kickoff for Kids and the District 205 Foundation along with a donation from the Elmhurst Garden Club and contributions by parents.
“We’re still in need of more funds to finish,” D’Alessandro said.
Baralt donated design time, Interlocking Pavers donated pavers and First Fence, Inc. donated fencing material. Due to a center drain, the project requires a custom bridge wide enough for a wheelchair to turn around in addition to wheel-friendly, natural mulch and all of the plants. D’Alessandro said she’s spent hours trying to find the same quality products like wheelchair accessible picnic tables at a lower price than the original estimates, but anticipates the project will still require $5,000 to $10,000.
She continues to write grants, but few are available to preschools and many are often geared toward technology. While she now volunteers at Field Elementary, where her children attend, D’Alessandro is determined to see the Madison project through as her way to give back to the school she thinks so many people overlook in Elmhurst.
“I think people don’t realize that Madison is here ... and how wonderful it is,” D’Alessandro said.