“The therapeutic value is going to be huge.”

That’s how Karen McClure-Richard, director of Pine Tree Society’s Early Learning Center describes the renovations to their building in Auburn.

This building at 589 Minot Avenue is home to both Pine Tree Society’s Early Learning Center and Adult Support Services.  Originally a warehouse, this industrial space is being transformed into an inviting environment in which people of all ages can grow, connect and reach their goals.

“Before the renovations, the adult space was one large, open room,” said Shelley Zielinski, director of Adult Support Services at Pine Tree Society.  “We’re breaking up the space into several different rooms including a computer lab, craft area and a place to store our recreational equipment.  Something as simple as being able to easily see and access our gear will go a long way towards prompting ideas for what people might like to try.”

Less noise and distraction will allow clients to better focus on their goals by removing barriers for exploration and discovery.  For example, increasing the number of computers from two to six and placing them in a quiet space will allow people to learn technology and research activities and interests without the distraction that can occur in a multi-purpose space.

“We’re working to really soften the space,” Shelley continued.  “People are excited.  They saw the new windows and HVAC system being installed and they have already experienced how much of a difference painting the ceiling and walls has made.  They are involved with choosing the colors and it’s a very empowering feeling for everyone.”

To maintain some history and provide a familiar feeling in the space, the adults selected various sections of artwork that had been painted on the walls and took photographs which will be transferred to canvases and hung on the new walls.

“It was artwork many people had seen for years and they have really enjoyed having that piece of history with us still as we have modernized the space,” said Shelley.  “Everything we’re doing has really been a mood booster for so many people.  They realize we’re doing all this on their behalf and there’s a true sense among everyone that Pine Tree Society is doing this because they care about me and they care about my space.”

The softening and modernization of the space is also very beneficial for the children.  Colorful kite like baffles will hang from the ceiling of the Early Learning Center indoor playspace not only to add whimsy but to also absorb sound critical for students with sensory challenges like autism.

“Having a softer floor is going to be amazing,” said Karen.  “Our purpose is to learn through play and although we try to get outside every day, there are days we can’t.  But kids still need to be able to use their big muscles.  We brought in equipment that will allow us to do some climbing activities when we can’t get outside. Our visiting therapists will also be able to use that space which will cut down on families having to travel for that service.”

Combining play with the use of big muscles is critical for learning. 

“Our brain needs to work left-to-right when reading,” Karen explained. “In order for kids to learn that skill, they need to be able to shift focus from one side of their body to the other.  For example, many kids use their right hand when something is on their right side, then shift to their left hand for their left side.  To develop their brain for reading and writing, we need to teach kids how to cross their body to get things versus switching hands.  It’s really all connected.”

Opportunities for learning through play will be further enhanced with a complete renovation of the current playground.

The site was not originally designed to be a preschool so the current landscaping is slanted and difficult for kids to navigate.  In addition to leveling the lot, there is a brook and a beautiful green space that the improved landscaping will open up.

New equipment will allow for expanded climbing opportunities for kids to work on hand and leg skills as well as separated areas for the slides and swing sets, all of which will be designed to help children support the muscles that need strengthening and for those with low tone to be able to work on their endurance.

In addition to improving current program spaces, Pine Tree Society will also be adding new services to the building.  A new 360-square foot room will house Pine Tree Society’s Assistive Technology Demo and Loan program. 

“Assistive Technology can be life changing for people with disabilities,” said Noel Sullivan, President and CEO of Pine Tree Society.  “In partnership with MaineCITE, our Demo and Loan program offers people the opportunity to learn about what’s available and actually borrow devices or equipment to try in their homes.”

The exterior of the building has already been restored and freshly painted and new signage is in place.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the construction schedule, next steps are now in progress, including: adding walls to not only cover the concrete blocks but to create a warmer environment and adding a new classroom for the Early Learning Center which will translate to serving more children ages three to six who are waiting for an early education environment that can meet their specific needs.

“Our programs have transitioned from remote offerings to small group in-person services based on CDC-recommendations and guidelines,” said Noel.  “We are looking forward to the completion of the renovations and welcoming all of our clients, students and families back into our improved physical space.”  

This work has transformed Pine Tree Society’s Auburn-based programming and, in turn, is impacting the lives of Maine people in tremendous ways at its specialized Early Learning Center for at-risk preschoolers and its innovative day program focused on helping adults discover their abilities through immersing in the community and building critical life skills.

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