Rachel Roslow’s life changed when her 19-month-old son, Ethan, was diagnosed with autism. After months of therapy, and with no place for Ethan to play and learn, Roslow and her family, who live in Merrick, began feeling frustrated. But that frustration generated an idea: to create a space for children like Ethan.
Over time, Roslow said, that seed grew into a bean, giving her a goal and high hopes. Four years later, she opened Sensory Beans — an all-inclusive play area for local children with special needs and disabilities — on Merrick Road in Wantagh.
At the grand opening on March 25, Ethan, now 6, jumped into a colorful foam pit and climbed up a padded fort in the gym alongside youngsters from Wantagh, Seaford, Bellmore, Merrick and other communities. Roslow said she was amazed to see her dream become a reality after years of planning, and raising close to $75,000 to establish the nonprofit organization and gym.
One of the biggest challenges she and her husband, Brett, faced during Ethan’s early years, Rachel recalled, was finding recreational activities for him. She described their anxiety when they received birthday party invitations, because they didn’t know how Ethan would act — or how parents and other children would respond to him if he had a meltdown, wandered the party in circles, or accidentally knocked over another child because he has limited awareness of what his body is doing and doesn’t understand that he needs to be mindful of the people around him.
While keeping him at home, where he played with his little brother, James, seemed like the easiest alternative, Roslow said she believed that her son needed to make friends, learn through playing and socializing with others, and have fun. And so she founded the nonprofit organization to create the gym.
“We want children of all ages and abilities to build bonds and friendships with each other,” she said. “We also want peer models for children with special needs so that they can learn social skills and other functional ways to communicate.”
Roslow added that she was excited to see all of the support from residents of Wantagh and neighboring communities. “We’re already seeing a positive impact,” she said. “We’re finding families are able to relate to one another and build friendships.”
With the help of a dozen volunteers, Roslow made sure that the play space was suitable for children of all ages and with a wide range of disabilities. The gym has two large slides, a foam pit, a rock wall, a hammock, a “tactile wall” and an adaptive swing.
With a safe place to explore, Roslow said, special-needs children would gain more self-esteem. She also encouraged families with children without special needs to come to Sensory Beans so those youngsters can play in an environment where they become accepting of others’ differences.
Theresa Matchekosky, an occupational therapist, a friend of Roslow’s and a volunteer member of the Sensory Beans board of directors, said that the facility is unique to the area. “Nothing like this really exists,” she said. “It’s an indoor play space where it doesn’t matter what your abilities are. It’s not like someone will be looking at you in a weird way if you stay on the apparatus for the entire time — that’s OK here.”
Matchekosky, who lives in Bellmore, said that the gym is also a perfect, nearby place for her 5-year-old son, Luke, to play and interact with other children. But seeing the look on Ethan Roslow’s face was one of her favorite parts of the grand opening.
“This is a place where he really belongs and that fits his needs perfectly,” she said. “He’s been so social with all of his friends, and talking with everyone.”
Elected officials, including State Sen. John Brooks, Hempstead Town Supervisor Anthony Santino and Town Councilman Gary Hudes stopped by the grand opening. Hudes said that Roslow’s passion for the cause was inspiring.
“Having a nephew that is autistic myself, I understand how hard it can be,” he said. “I saw what my brother and sister-in-law went through in finding places that were geared for [his needs].”
He did everything he could to help the Roslow family find space for the gym in the Wantagh area, Hudes added, explaining that Sensory Beans “fills a tremendous void” in southeast Nassau County.
Roslow said that she looked forward to seeing more and more families bring their children to the gym, and expanding it. “We’re watching self-esteem levels rise and friendships grow,” she noted. “It’s truly amazing to see the involvement of the community and the smiles on our children’s faces.”