January 12, 2024
• When Grace Lutheran Church announced it would be closing its doors come last September, the Grace Christian Nursery School faced a difficult dilemma.
The preschool, which operated under the church’s umbrella for more than 40 years, had two options: close alongside the church or evolve into a new nonprofit.
Program Director Jean Lorence and her staff chose the latter.
“The teachers and I sat down and decided, ‘You know what? We care a lot about each other, we care a lot about our families, and we know that there isn’t another school, at least in our town, that offers a majority of outside nature play every single day,’” Lorence said. “We felt it was important to continue.”
Grace Christian Nursery School became Wonder Garden Preschool, a “seamless entry school” that connects the indoor and outdoor classrooms to better support young learners, Lorence said. With that mission in mind, the school found its new home at the Charles River Center, which supports children and adults with developmental disabilities through diverse programming.
In their new space, the outside world is within direct reach for the preschool’s 26 students. No matter the weather, children are free to explore their wooded environment, where they can sled, make mud pies and run through the grass, among other activities.
And throughout the day, Charles River Center CEO Anne-Marie Bajwa will peek outside to watch the new arrivals play. For Bajwa, it’s a match made in heaven.
The center strives to help their own program participants make an impact on the broader Needham community and be recognized for their value. By partnering with the preschool and sharing a campus, Bajwa said they’re, in turn, spreading awareness and broadening their reach.
“Working with children or even assisting a school is not a typical experience,” Bajwa said. “Most schools don’t take that risk with our people… This potentially has the opportunity to work our mission, help folks get comfortable seeing and being with people with developmental disabilities and autism and so on and so forth and also give them that experience.”
Preschoolers and those attending the center are linked by a couple attributes: they’re “people who make noise, who make messes, [and] who just live life in the moment,” Lorence said. Wonder Garden’s motto is “friends help friends,” she said, and the center’s generosity, openness and kindness is overwhelming.
As their young students grow, Lorence said it’s important they spend time with different types of people and learn to treat everyone with kindness. This school year, one individual from the center has joined in on the preschool’s morning outdoor play a couple times, which has been a special experience for all involved, Lorence said.
That connection is bound to strengthen, Bajwa added — over the next year or two, adults from the center may be hired to clean or organize the preschool’s space. The center staffers are eager to get involved, as the organizations share a similar “passion and dedication and commitment” to their populations, she said.
“That’s the beauty of the school and this synergy,” she said. “They’re very welcoming, and children in general are very welcoming.”
Founded in 1956, the Charles River Center serves more than 950 people with disabilities and their loved ones through day programming, job training, respite services, recreation and more.
Wonder Garden occupies a classroom at the Paul D. Merritt Center, which still is used for the Charles River Center’s kids program for 5 to 21-year-olds after the preschool closes for the day. The preschool also took over an office space and has an outdoor area that includes a fenced playground.
This time last year, the preschool faced an uncertain future that generated fear and promised disruption for families, most of whom already enrolled before the move was announced. However, their new “beautiful” environment made it all worth it, Lorence said. More “magical days” are ahead, she said.
“It feels like home,” she said. “You’ve got your patio, your lawn, so it just feels like a comfortable space for everybody.”