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A nature trail for all

Right now, in Letchworth State Park, a completely original concept is taking shape. 

“There really is nothing else quite like it,” says Loren Penman, who is justifiably proud of the soon-to-be-opened Autism Nature Trail (ANT). “Lots of people are working hard to make public places accessible, but we are making an accessible place public.”

Penman, a retired educator, spent several years as a middle school principal, and the inspiration for this trail was born out of those years. Middle school “is a tough time,” she says, especially for kids with differences such as autism or a developmental disability. She felt moved to do more for this population and one day had a fortuitous conversation with a neighbor about her grandson. 

The grandson, a young boy who lived in the Albany area, was nonverbal and “in a constant state of agitation”—except when he visited his grandmother and went to Letchworth. Being in the park was uniquely calming for him. “I thought it was nature-related,” Penman says. 

As luck would have it, Penman had another friend with a grandson on the spectrum—a young man living in New York City—and Letchworth had the same calming effect on him. Penman did some research and found that the combination of moving water and a pine forest may be beneficial for people in general but especially so for people on the autism spectrum. “We didn’t spend a lot of time on cause and cure, though,” she says. “Our focus is on making outdoor recreation enjoyable for everyone.” 

The trail has now been in the works for seven years. At the outset, Penman and her cochairs Susan Herrnstein, whose grandson is on the spectrum, and Gail Serventi, an experienced speech-language pathologist, wondered what they could do to make something special at Letchworth. “We tossed some ideas around. And then we went straight to the top,” Penman says. They cold-called famous autism expert Temple Grandin to ask for her help. Grandin’s assistant called back to vet them, and twenty minutes later Penman’s phone rang—Grandin had returned the call. She agreed to advise the project, and she was “always very straightforward … she does not mince words.” Grandin warned them that people would try to get them to move the project closer to a city. And that did happen, Penman says, but the collaborators had all agreed that this that would defeat the purpose—the trail needed to be “in deep nature.” 

It took a while to convince stakeholders that the project was sincere. Penman already sat on the Genesee Region Parks Commission and she knew that park budgets were unpredictable at best. The cochairs committed to raise the money privately, and that helped considerably in the efforts to sell decision makers on the project. 

Once they had raised three million dollars, the groundbreaking for the ANT could take place, which it did in January. The trail should be completed late this summer, although construction is weather dependent, so an exact date is not available. The construction company is Titan Development out of Gasport. who has been extremely careful and is treating this as the special project that it is.

The trail will feature eight separate stations, including an introductory area showing participants things they may see, touch, and smell along the way. Each step has a different focus. The stations were designed by experts—people on the autism spectrum plus occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, school counselors, and special education teachers in addition to architects and landscape architects. “These folks have been wonderful, just wonderful,” Penman says. “We had a full range of advisors, and the input was amazing.” All three cochairs put in a monumental amount of work in planning the ANT over the last seven years. When life got in the way for one, the other two would step up to keep things moving. “These two women have become my sisters, in every sense of the word,” she says.

Details are important. A music circle with low-tone, mostly percussive instruments is carefully situated slightly off the beaten path, so that anyone who does not wish to participate or hear the instruments’ sounds will not be overwhelmed. The instruments are natural, and they are only as loud as the participant wishes. “There are no surprises,” Penman says. “So, if that kind of noise bothers you can skip it entirely. All of these things have been carefully considered by the experts.”

The trail will be completely ADA compliant. The surface is  stone dust, which is very natural-looking but compacts almost like concrete, thus is easily accessible to anyone in a wheelchair, stroller, or walker. Braille and features for the hearing impaired will be available. Programming and activities at the trail will be managed by Camp Puzzle Peace, a Rochester nonprofit. The Perry Central School District, contiguous to the park, will oversee trail maintenance and coordinating volunteers. Plans are in place to maintain the project into perpetuity. In development now is a highly interactive website that participants will be able to view before ever going to the park.

The trail will never close, but some of the equipment may be stored in winter. It will be open from dawn to dusk whenever Letchworth is.

Families are encouraged to use the trail in their own way—some participants may not care about the stations at all but simply want a safe place to walk in the woods. Sometimes parents become very stressed about outings, Penman explains, when they know their child might display challenging behaviors. This is meant to be a safe place for any family where such behaviors are expected, and no one should be judgmental. As she puts it, “If the behavior bothers someone who is not used to neurodiversity, there are 14,000 other acres at Letchworth State Park that they are welcome to go explore.”  

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