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‘This place is so cool!’: Four Rivers embraces visitors of all abilities 

Visitors at Four Rivers participate in an interpretive program.
(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Whenever Kim Bus sees an outing to Four Rivers Environmental Education Center on the work schedule, she immediately says, “I’ll go.” 

Why? Because the Forest Preserve District’s Four Rivers in Channahon is different. Four Rivers is the first nature center in the country to receive accreditation as an inclusive facility from the National Inclusion Project.

That makes it the perfect spot for groups of adults or children with disabilities to visit. Bus, who works as a lead direct support professional with Little Friends in Warrenville, said she has really enjoyed her three trips to Four Rivers in different seasons and for different activities. 

“I love that this is a place, an outdoor place, a place that offers experiences in nature that really include everybody,” she said during the most recent visit on Jan. 26. “Anybody can come here. We’ve brought folks in wheelchairs; we’ve brought folks with walkers. The paths are paved and very nice. They can get right down to the river without much of a problem. They really thought things through when they designed this place.”

Snow day

As her group entered the building during the January visit, one member looked around at the exhibits and the 2,000-gallon river fish aquarium and exclaimed, “This place is so cool!”

The outing was snow themed, and the six Little Friends group members learned about different types of snowflakes ranging from diamond dust to 12-sided snowflakes. They engaged in an indoor snowball fight with white foam balls, took a short outdoor hike to view what was left of the recent snowfall and completed a snow-themed craft project.

On past outings, visitors from Little Friends used nets to scoop snails and other aquatic creatures from the water and spent time fishing, which were unique learning opportunities, Bus said. 

“They are still talking about the fishing expedition,” she said. “They loved it.”

And even though the river creature program was held in the pouring rain, “We had the best time ever,” Bus said. “They’ve all been fun experiences; our folks have really enjoyed them.”

Bus said the Forest Preserve staff at Four Rivers is amazing and helpful.

“And they really do a great job of interacting with our people, which is another reason why we keep coming back,” she said. 

Experiences for all individuals

The national inclusivity accreditation Four Rivers received in November took a lot of work, training and preparations, said Jerome Gabriel, the Forest Preserve’s facility supervisor at Four Rivers. And seeing how all the changes and improvements work together when groups visit is very rewarding, he added. 

“The accreditation process means that we provide an inclusive experience for all individuals who come to visit the facility, whether that’s for our programs, or exhibit spaces or even coming out and experiencing just the trails,” Gabriel said. 

Inclusive elements featured at Four Rivers are:

  • A quiet space for individuals with sensory processing needs.
  • Screen-reader enabled QR codes for those with visual impairments.
  • Live transcription during events.
  • Buddy bags that contain earphones, fidgets and more. 
  • A paved All-Persons Trail with interpretive signs. 
  • Downloadable talking boards and visual schedules that prepare visitors before they arrive and allow them to create step-by-step reminders of what their experience will include.
  • An all-terrain wheelchair will be added in the spring for use by members of the public on natural-surface trails. 

In addition to accommodating the families and individuals that visit the site, Four Rivers also hosts outside groups like the one from Little Friends that offer day programs for adults or day school for children. Visitors from these agencies may have sensory processing needs, cognitive disabilities or physical disabilities. But they can join all activities. 

“Being inclusive means that everybody regardless of their disability level can participate alongside everyone else,” Gabriel said. “So, our programs in our facility are designed so that everybody can participate with each other and not necessarily in separate ways.”

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