Written by Heather Hymas

On Wednesday, May 20, The Learning Center for Families—or TLC as they are commonly known—presented the St. George City Council with a check for $10,000 to sponsor the Sensory Garden portion of the new All Abilities Park. The park is expected to be completed later this summer and is located just minutes from TLC’s St. George main office. The board donated the money in honor of the retiring Executive Director of The Learning Center, Debbie Justice, who is retiring in September after serving TLC for 22 years. Board members surprised Justice with the news that the garden will be officially named The Debbie Justice Sensory Garden.

President of the board of directors for TLC, Shirlee Draper, said their organization felt very strongly about having a permanent presence in a space which will be appreciated by so many of the families they serve.

“Many of the 13,000 families served by Debbie and TLC over the past 22 years have children with Sensory Processing Disorder and will benefit from the new park and Sensory Garden,” Draper said. “It just made sense to name the garden after Debbie to honor all of the amazing work she has done over the years for this community.”

Justice co-founded The Learning Center for Families in 1993 with only three employees and one location and has since grown the agency to five locations and 65 employees. She has three children – two with special needs—and has built an extensive resume of experience and awards over the years, including being named Woman of the Year by Washington County Business and Professional Women, Rotarian of the Year by Red Rock Morning Rotary, and Region VIII Head Start Administrator of the Year among others.

Justice also has an impressive resume of achievements under her belt, including securing the initial Early Head Start Grant in 2002, an expansion grant in 2009, the First Things First grant from Arizona in 2009, and the Maternal, Infant and early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) grant in 2012. She started the first “fee for services” program, Kindermusik, which enhances developmental skills through music and movement. Justice also led TLC to receive the St. George Chamber of Commerce’s 2015 Community of Compassion–Nonprofit of the year award, and coordinated with the Salt Lake Community Action Program to serve as a vendor for eight slots of childcare beginning later this summer.

At the city council meeting, Draper said it was hard to quantify the impact Justice has made on the community but that the long-term effects will be felt as the first graduates of the program become parents themselves.

“Debbie has worked tirelessly and without taking any personal time or vacation to make sure that this community has access to the best programs available in terms of childhood development, family education, and healthy pregnancies,” Draper said. “She manages five major federal and state contracts as well as started Childcare and Kindermusik programs. She is completely selfless and devoted to the program, and we will definitely feel the loss with her retirement.”

More than just a way to honor Justice, the reason for the donation to the Sensory Garden comes from the need for services and lack of education about Sensory Processing Disorder. The Learning Center for Families conducts regular home visits to families who have young children with SPD and provides them with strategies, resources and support to help them meet the sensory needs of their children. Therapists and learning consultants go with the families to daycares, parks, and even grocery stores to come up with strategies for when the family needs to be in that environment but feels restricted due to a child’s sensory processing disorder.

TLC uses pillows, blankets, playground equipment, diaper boxes, and everyday objects and toys to improve sensory processing on a daily, real-world level, rather than simply at an occasional occupational therapy session. Amy Nagle, an occupational therapist for TLC, said that SPD is a very misunderstood condition.

“We try to provide families with information that is based on current research within the field,” Nagle said. “We help them network with other families in similar situations. We even provide a class that focuses on sensory processing and behavior to help families learn information about their child but also learn that they are not alone.”

For an idea of what the Sensory Garden will look (and sound) like and how these parks benefit children with special needs, visit http://freenotesharmonypark.com or http://www.sgcity.org/allabilities.

For more information on The Learning Center for Families, please visit www.tlc4families.org or contact Janie Belliston at (435) 673-5353 ext. 139 or email at [email protected].