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Student's Desire to Help Takes Root

As a freshman, senior Rachel Newmiller decided to lend a hand at the Campus School. The relationship has worked out well for everyone.

Rachel Newmiller '13 with the special adaptive flower beds she helped create and install at the Campus School (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Melissa Beecher | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 29, 2012

Rachel Newmiller ’13 walked into the Boston College Campus School as a freshman and asked Volunteer Coordinator Sean Schofield if there was some way she could help. Four years later, she is still helping both faculty and students at the school, which serves children with multiple disabilities.

Newmiller recently spearheaded an effort to create and install adaptive flowerbeds for wheelchair-bound students with severe special needs. Funded through a community grant from The Home Depot’s West Roxbury branch, a small army of volunteers gathered on campus earlier this month to install a new multi-sensory learning space outside the Campus School.

A Presidential Scholar and biology major from Dresher, Pa., Newmiller came to BC with a background in woodworking and sculpture. She put those skills to good use, volunteering to create adaptive technologies.

“[In high school] I took three-dimensional design and several art classes. I enjoy the creative outlet – especially now that I am a science major. This adaptive design is a way that I can utilize that creative outlet in service to others,” said Newmiller.

Over the years, working with Transitional Coordinator Mary Lessard and Occupational Therapist Karen Rocco, Newmiller has created specialized and highly individualized devices that aid in classroom instruction. These include a custom sensory board to improve one student’s muscle strength and a wheelchair mount that can hold oratory stimulants for blind children. 

In her application to Home Depot, Newmiller described the Campus School as “an incredibly special place where arm movement and the use of a hand are causes for celebration; hope abounds even though reality can be overwhelming. Every day, staff and volunteers work to fulfill the school’s mission of ‘realizing the potential in all students.’ It is a testament to the dedication of the Campus School community that its classrooms are brimming with positivity, joy, and compassion.”

No project was as large or costly as the adaptive flowerbeds. Newmiller, Lessard and Rocco researched and designed a multi-tiered planting bed that can be accessed from different sized wheelchairs. With a design in mind, Newmiller then applied for and was awarded a Home Depot “Team Depot” community grant to fund the project. The West Roxbury Home Depot team visited with the Campus School three times before the installation, then volunteered time and donated equipment to make the project possible.

The “H”-shaped adaptive beds have replaced a structure inaccessible to many at the school. As part of the plan, Newmiller designed a sloped table that will contain potted plants, so students who lack the ability to move can still touch and feel the various plantings. Newmiller has recommended a wide variety of plantings with different textures, aromas and colors to stimulate different senses.

“The planting boxes that are there now were put in place many, many years ago when we had a very different population,” said Lessard, who coordinates adaptive technology at the Campus School. “Rachel saw a problem and did something to solve it. 

“It has been really fun to watch Rachel grow and mature over the years to find what is interesting and impact the world around her in a positive way.”

 Said Newmiller, “We really can’t say enough about the support we received from the West Roxbury Home Depot. The associates we are working with have been very helpful, generous, and enthusiastic throughout this process, and we are so thankful for their assistance.”

In a statement, Home Depot said: “Team Depot programs bring together volunteerism, do-it-yourself expertise and product donations as a way to meet community needs through hands-on service. Giving back is a fundamental value of The Home Depot and a passion for the West Roxbury store.”

While at BC, Newmiller has worked in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory of Psychology Associate Professor Elizabeth Kensinger, served as a research assistant and fulfilled the demands of the Presidential Scholars Program. One summer, she helped maintain and build various exhibits at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. Her varied experiences have caused her to consider consulting at private nonprofits after graduation, or pursuing a graduate degree in nonprofit management.

Newmiller said she wants to find a career that enables her to continue to give back.

“Being at the Campus School helps to keep everything in perspective. It’s a really incredible place.”