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Learning from Plants at Overbrook School for the Blind

Visually impaired students learn about the natural world through touch, smell and taste at a new horticultural center.



Horticulture Therapist Rich Matteo introduces plants to students (from left) Shahdirah W., Danielle S., and Scot B., by having them rub the leaves of the plant to smell the scent at the M. Christine Murphy Horticulture Education Center at Overbrook School for the Blind on June 6, 2019.

Photos by Colleen Claggett

The Overbrook School for the Blind was built back in 1832 and sits comfortably on 26 acres of land in Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood, but its newest feature is a $1 million horticultural center that brings the outside world into the classroom to help students experience the natural world through touch, smell and taste.

The M. Christine Murphy Horticulture and Education Center opened in May to integrate new horticulture therapy techniques into the curriculum, while also amplifying the school’s award-winning Farm to Table program.

Named for a woman who broke barriers

The horticulture center is dedicated to the late M. Christine Murphy, a previous board member, advocate for Overbrook School for the Blind, and one of the first women to break through barriers in the finance world within the city of Philadelphia.

Todd Reeves, executive director and CEO of Overbrook School for the Blind, explained Murphy’s immense impact on the school and the city.

“It’s a kind of poetic irony that our students will enjoy an environment underneath a glass ceiling where things grow and is named for somebody who broke glass ceilings,” says Reeves.

The 1,780 square-foot horticultural center was funded in part by the Murphy’s husband, the Green Mountain Energy Sun Club, and several other board members and organizations such as the Philadelphia Foundation and the McLean Contributionship.

Hands-on lessons

The greenhouse will offer accessible techniques of horticulture therapy for students to experience and handle plant life, as well as opportunities for job training.

“Horticulture therapy is using plant-based activities to achieve the same therapeutic goals that would be found within physical, occupational, and speech therapy,” says Rich Matteo, OSB’s horticultural therapist.

Some therapy techniques are sensory based, where students can touch textured plants or smell lemon verbena or citronella and experience them through different senses.

 

Overbrook School for the Blind Horticultural Therapy

Horticulture Therapist Rich Matteo assists student Danielle S. in crafting her card by guiding her hands over pressed flowers at the M. Christine Murphy Horticulture Education Center at Overbrook School for the Blind on June 9, 2019. (Photo by Colleen Claggett)

Much of the therapy techniques are hands on, where Matteo helps students experience the full life cycle of a plant, from planting the seed, transplanting them outside, to harvesting whatever the plant grows.

This type of therapy provides a functional basis to focus on things that have a particular meaning within an educational standpoint.

“The idea is to be constantly using the materials that we harvest from outside and what we can create ourselves, so the program can be self-sustaining,” says Matteo. “You can tell that the kids are starting to appreciate the outside more from being in a controlled and safe environment like in a classroom.”

Farm-to-table in the classroom

These therapeutic activities also contribute to the school’s Farm to Table program. Planting and harvesting the plants allow the students to step out of their comfort zone and try new fruits and vegetables that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible to them.

Shahdirha W., a recent graduate of OSB, helps with the weekly produce sale for the school’s staff members.

“I go around campus and sell the produce. We load a cart full of the produce and walk around campus and try to sell it,” says Shahdirha.

Not only does this horticultural center provide positive therapeutic outcomes, it also has the potential to become a vocational opportunity for students who will soon be leaving OSB. They can learn the skills needed to work a job outside of the school, whether that be working with plant life or elsewhere.  

Overbrook School for the Blind Horticultural Therapy

Students Danielle S. and Shahdirah W. and Horticulture Therapist Rich Matteo feel an aloe plant in the M. Christine Murphy Horticulture Education Center at Overbrook School for the Blind on June 6, 2019. (Photo by Colleen Claggett)

The horticultural center runs on renewable and sustainable sources of energy such as solar panels, and uses greywater to water the plants.

“This particular center gives the opportunity to promote the commitment to 21st century thinking of sustainability and creating a better environmental future for everyone. We will always want to be creating a better world for our students,” says Reeves.

“We want to make sure our students not just receive a minimal level of education but the kinds of experiences that are as rich as any experiences of any student in any school,” says Reeves. “This has a broader impact than just learning about botany. This exemplifies the notion that we are committed as a school to give students an education that their parents can be proud of and they can be proud of.”

Emma Kuliczkowski and Colleen Claggett are MetroKids intern and students at Temple University. 

Overbrook School for the Blind Horticultural Therapy

Horticulture Therapist Rich Matteo introduces plants to students (from left) Shahdirah W., Danielle S., and Scot B., by having them rub the leaves of the plant to smell the scent at the M. Christine Murphy Horticulture Education Center at Overbrook School for the Blind on June 6, 2019. (Photo by Colleen Claggett)

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