GTM Research Reserve implements sensory inclusive initiative


For nearly 20 years, the Friends of the GTM Reserve has supported the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve through private citizens who volunteer time, talent and treasure to help the Reserve achieve its mission. And the momentum continues to increase.

Several “wins” were reported at the Dec. 11 annual meeting of the Friends of the GTM Reserve. They set a new record for annual volunteer service hours 11,000. They exceeded the Oceanwise 2019 fundraising goal with $47,000 raised, and increased active Friends members by 15%. But numbers tell only a part of the story.

Ellen Leroy Reed, Friends executive director, introduced a sensory inclusive program, which is part of the “GTM for All” initiative to provide accessibility and promote inclusivity at the Reserve.

Sensory inclusion means the Reserve and its staff are trained to interact with visitors dealing with conditions such as autism, PTSD, Parkinson’s disease and early onset dementia. Sensory bags, equipped with noise canceling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads will be available at the Visitor Center front desk for anyone feeling overwhelmed. Those requiring a quieter, more secure environment will have access to a dedicated quiet room designed with guidance from medical professionals.

When Reed realized students with autism and their families did not visit the Reserve because of sensory and safety concerns, she turned to volunteers for input. Friends member Janet Koehler reached out to Elise Summa, lead clinician at the UF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, to ask how to make Reserve programs accessible to students with autism. That was Dec. 19, 2018.

Summa said while organizations may have big ideas, it often takes a lot of time to get things rolling. “One thing that impressed me is the Reserve just kept the ball rolling,” she said. “So much has been accomplished in a year.”

Summa presented a timeline of progress after the initial phone conversation with Koehler. After a site visit, Summa designed training for staff and volunteers, who were eager to participate. An introductory video was produced so students would know what to expect. In April, the Reserve was ready to seek certification as sensory inclusive from Kulture City.

In August, Teachers on the Estuary participated in the sensory inclusive program. In September, virtual reality headsets allowed severely autistic students who are unable to visit the reserve in person, to experience the estuary. In October, Summa watched an autistic child engage with wildlife at the Reserve.

“He reached out and touched the turtle, and that was a moment,” Summa said. “This was a kid who couldn’t care less about what was going on around him.”

With the Kulture City certification, the GTM Research Reserve is better prepared to assist guests with sensory sensitivities in order to facilitate the most comfortable and accommodating experience possible. Reed hopes other reserves will implement similar programs. While much progress has been made, continuous improvements are expected. The quiet room is still being designed and community outreach materials are being developed.

“This initiative is integrated into the fiber of the Reserve,” Reed said.