During a recent ­­Diverse Learner Tour at the Oak Park Conservatory, Jamie Childs of Oak Park eagerly scratched and sniffed the green skin of a softball size fruit growing on its   Ponderosa Lemon Tree.

As the hanging show-and-tell fruit passed hand-to-hand through the small group of developmentally disabled adults from UCP Seguin Services “Choice” program, Andrea Green, a volunteer tour guide for  the Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory, shared more about it. 

After they all went nose-to-fruit, Green told the conservatory visitors that the scent resembles that of the mosquito repellent, citronella: sweet, but not over-powering and pleasant. 

To create interactive sensory experiences for groups such as this one, Green teamed with consultant Julyne Seger to invent and debut the free educational experience last spring.

Since then, the tour’s popularity has been growing, she says. 

“This is not horticultural therapy.  But, our Diverse Learner Tour is geared to people who have learning disabilities or social limitations or other limitations that make it difficult for them to respond as other adults would as they take a tour,” Green said, prior to stepping off to lead the hour-long interactive and sensory-driven learning experience through the four very different “ecosystems” of the Oak Park Conservatory, 615 Garfield St.

As they queued through the Mediterranean room and in to the Rain Forest, Childs says she stopped to gawk at the squawking, whistling, and talking tropical birds, especially the avian Skipper.

“Some of the birds talk, some whistle and one is quiet.  I liked the birds,” says Childs, 

Nearby, her classmate, Oak Parker Luis “LJ” Rodrigus, was reaching out to hold and smell the weighty, brown seed of the conservatory’s South American Cacao Tree, the stuff from which chocolate in all its forms starts.

“I like learning about the countries where the plants live,” he said post tour, rattling off several of them.  “In South America they have the Cacao Tree.  Cactus have thorns and grow in the desert.  Yes, please, I would like to come back again.”

Green says the aim of the inclusive tour programming is to “cover the same horticultural material topics that the tours do that are geared for children and adults.”    

Because the content is simplified, and the tour itself is sensory-driven it opens up a new world of learning for folks who learn differently.

An advantage for Laura Lopez, a life skills program leader at UCP Seguin, is that her day program participants are walking distance from the Oak Park Conservatory and they regularly take advantage of that, visiting on their own, or in groups for an organized tour.  Today she says were two aides and seven of her “special” consumers. 

“Maybe they will see something on this tour that they can plant at their own homes, or our Levinson Center,” says Jim Haptonstahl, Seguin’s executive vice president.  “But, in general, it gives them a chance to get out where they belong.  Integrated into the community.”

For Childs, the love of learning about plants is growing.

“The black-eyed Susans and the coneflowers in the Discovery Garden, yeah, my mom has those,” she said.  “The cactus is my favorite plant, because I have an aunt in Phoenix and the lemons, when I scratched the skin, well they smelled really, really good.”  

Oak Park Conservatory

Complete address: 615 Garfield Street, Oak Park, IL 60304

General office number: 708-725-2460


Leadership contact name & title: Executive Director Beth Cheng, President Ellen Kuner

Statement of purpose: The mission of the Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory is to promote community interest in the Conservatory, to offer educational and recreational opportunities and to support projects that benefit the Conservatory.

How long have you been in existence? We were founded in 1986

Ways volunteers can help: Lead tours, develop new tours, help in the showrooms and behind the scenes, staff the Exploration Station and the Gift Shop, prepare and deliver Exploration Kits to local kindergartens, staff Toddler Exploration Time (TET), become a garden host, serve on the Board of Directors or on a committee.

To volunteer, call:  708-725-2460, ext. 2 or coordinator@fopcon.org

Useful donations other than money: Serve on the Board of Directors or on a committee.

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....