At Green Chimneys in Putnam County, the cacophony of animal sounds – goats bleating, kookaburras laughing, Bactrian camels making the sounds that Bactrian camels make — will be joined by hammers pounding and saws whirring.
The organization, which provides day and residential educational treatment options for special-needs children, received a $750,000 state grant in the recently announced Regional Economic Development Council funding awards to renovate two buildings and add seven classrooms on its grounds. The school has around 100 residential students and serves children from 75 school districts in the Hudson Valley.
The majority of Green Chimneys’ students come from New York, where their individual school districts recommend them for the program and the state picks up the bill. But a spokesperson said a number of students are Fairfield County residents, ineligible for New York funding, whose families pay. A “residential program inquiry form” on the website begins the process.
Five classrooms will be built in Ross Hall, which is named for Sam Ross, who founded Green Chimneys in 1947, and two will be built in the Nature’s Nursery building, which houses early childhood education programs.
“It’s going to give us some elbow room,” said Joe Whalen, the nonprofit’s executive director. “It gets the kids out of (classroom trailers) here, and they’ll go away as soon as we finish the classrooms.”
Whalen said replacing the classroom trailers with the new classrooms will allow Green Chimneys to expand to accommodate the need for its services.
“There’s parents right now that want to place their kids, but there’s no room at the inn, so to speak,” Whalen said. “Those parents have been looking for a resource, and we’ll be able to do more and expand our service to the region.”
Among the services that Green Chimneys provides is therapy in a farm environment. According to the Green Chimneys website, children can play with a dog, cat or rabbit during a session with a trained adult. More comprehensive approaches offered entail children experiencing an immersion with animals, including therapeutic horseback riding, horticulture therapy with greenhouse and garden work as well as nature activities, and a dog interaction and training program to help prepare rescued dogs for adoption.
“The founder, Sam Ross, and Myra Ross (his wife), they developed the program and the school, and had animals from day one,” said Whalen, who began his career at Green Chimneys as a teacher. “They knew why it was important for the kids residing here, and it’s developed and has a bigger impact today than they probably thought it would back in 1947.”
Animals, Whalen said, are therapeutic partners with the children under the modern techniques Green Chimneys uses. The menagerie maintained by the school ranges from birds of prey, including an Andean condor and a bald eagle, to horses, goats, sheep and a pair of Bactrian camels.
“We’re considered, internationally, one of the best sites for this kind of interaction,” Whalen said.
Kristin Dionne, Green Chimneys’ director of fund development, said the school is excited about the grant.
“It really shows the economic impact that Green Chimneys has, even though we’re a nonprofit,” Dionne said. “We have over 500 employees, which makes us one of the largest in Putnam County.”
Dionne and Whalen said the renovation and construction of the classrooms will help Green Chimneys continue to hire locally. The organization frequently uses local subcontractors for plumbing, electrical and other needs.
“We want to make sure (we) have an impact to the community,” Whalen said. “Anybody that’s out there that wants to plumb or do something, we always have something to bid on.”
To Whalen and Dionne, the grant and the seven new classrooms it will provide are signs that people notice the important work that Green Chimneys does and the impact that it has in the Hudson Valley.
“The fact that (the economic development council) looked at us as some place that could benefit, we celebrate it,” Whalen said. “We believe that we have to support our local community. That’s healthy for all of us. I think we’ll be growing for a long time.”