Surroundings can make a huge difference when it comes to enabling people with special needs, from the color of the paint on the walls to the way a garden is laid out.

Directors at two local facilities have used research and practical experience to create havens for their residents and employees.

Design builds determination

At the top of a hill in Cave Spring sits the Cave Spring Center, part of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. The center’s mission is to help people with disabilities develop self-discipline, work ethics and job skills.

Students live in dorms and the facility can serve up to 50 at a time. Instructors work with a variety clients — deaf, blind, learning disabled, physically disabled — sometimes all in the same classroom.

The building is a study in how to enable, with wide doorways and halls, smooth and clearly marked flooring featuring rubberized, textured entryways to make navigating easier for blind students, message boards that also scroll the daily news and open spaces with plenty of natural light.

At almost five years old, the facility is a boon not just to its students but to its instructors as well.

“Mainly, this state-of-the-art building makes us feel better,” explained Raquel Tarleton, the employability instructor. “The old building we were in had no classrooms; we just sat in a semi-circle in a room and talked to the students. Now, we have classrooms of our own that we can arrange for the benefit of our students.”

The walls of Tarleton’s classroom are covered with posters with large, easy-to-read letters spelling out keys to finding employment and words of encouragement.

Desks are arranged in a half-rectangle, with her desk at the center and a large SmartBoard behind her. There’s plenty of room to move around, which was intentional, she said.

“We all like to move around, walk and talk,” she said. “Honestly, after more than four years here, I still say a little prayer of thanks that I work in such a beautiful facility.”

The creation of that facility was a labor of love. When it was time to build the Cave Spring Center, director Russell Fleming met with the architect every week, according to Denise Puckett, employment training specialist.

“They would talk about the list of things we needed,” she said. “Our maintenance man would meet with him too and talk about things he’d noticed that were needed.”

In the dorms, every room has a buzzer which serves as a doorbell and is connected to a light that flashes inside the room for hearing-impaired students. Warning lights for weather and lockdowns are in the same bank of lights, so staff may warn students of any situation.

The showers have drains in the floor, with no entrance lip to obstruct the physically disabled, and the kitchen appliances are set lower — within reach of people in wheelchairs.

Also, the walls, floors and outside walkways are textured so blind students can tell where they are. And a fenced area is set up especially for service dogs.

“We thought of everything we could,” said Tarleton.

Of course, even with those innovations in place, the facility isn’t really finished.

“We are constantly evolving and learning new things that help our students,” said Puckett. “We recently found some mats that help hold plates still, so it is easier for a student with one arm to cut something such as an orange. You don’t think about how much that means to someone who has never been able to cut an orange by themselves.”

Design rebuilds and restores

The Harbor at Renaissance Marquis — which serves patients with Alzheimer’s — is a trendsetter, according to executive director Renita Carnes.

“We have seen other centers use some of the same designs,” she said. “It is refreshing, really, to see that it is accepted that these elements make a difference.”

The Harbor is filled with soft, soothing colors. The walls and ceilings are blue and the carpeted floor is green, to mimic the outdoors. Large windows let in natural light in every resident’s room as well as in the common areas.

“It keeps them from feeling closed in,” Carnes explained. “We also use a lot of drawings of local places, such as well-known spots at Berry College, to stimulate our residents. They remember seeing these places, and they talk about them with each other and the staff.”

Doors to the wing itself are painted to look like bookcases.

“This prevents our residents from wanting to leave,” explained Carnes. “If they see a door, they want to go through it. Alzheimer’s patients are often in this mood to go, go, go. When they see a door, but it won’t open for them, they become agitated.”

Some of them even have half-circles of black linoleum in front of them that are reminiscent of small holes, to make the residents wary of the area.

Carnes is especially proud of the Dutch doors to each resident’s room. Residents may close the door for privacy, but staffers can push open the top half to peek in on their charges.

“It allows us to see them, without disturbing them by fully opening the door and walking in,” she said.

Each room also has a shadow box filled with mementos that are important to each resident.

“It helps them identify the room as theirs,” said Carnes. “We try to help them maintain normal lifestyles because it makes them feel independent and secure.”

And the decor in the common areas recreates the world of the residents’ youth. The dining area looks like a restaurant of the 1940s or ’50s and the entertainment area resembles the DeSoto Theatre downtown.

“They remember their youth and they see themselves in that time,” she said.

Everything in The Harbor is set up to be touched, as well, added Carnes. Art on the walls has texture. Hallway walls are lined with picket fence posts. The residents’ garden even houses a chicken and a rooster now.

“Many of our residents grew up on farms,” Carnes said. “They love the rooster crowing. They go outside and hold the chicken and rooster and rub their bellies like they were puppies. They grow plants in the tower garden. It’s very stimulating for them, yet it makes them comfortable.”

Carnes said these design innovations may seem small, but they do make a difference.

“It is proven that they help our residents physically and mentally,” she said. “We have had many residents who thrived much longer than originally expected.”


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