The pandemic gave the unlikely pair the perfect space and time to collaborate on the project.
The 20-by-25, square-foot room is now a place where children with autism and behavior disorders can go to decompress and connect with friendly sea creatures: a giant thoughtful turtle, curious zebra fish, an smart octopus, a smiling shark, inconspicuous stingrays and more.
“Wherever you go is a story,” Ronen said, spinning around with a 360 view of the room with the underwater view. “I do murals, and I cater to the location and its needs.”
Originally Ronen had a one-week deadline to complete the artwork in the sensory room, an umbrella term used to talk about a therapeutic safe space used for therapy for children with limited communication skills.
When the pandemic hit, Ronen decided to stretch the project to two weeks to tell the underwater story. The challenge was to come up with a fish tank which was not repetitive. The panoramic view of the room tells a complete visual aquatic story.
“I hope this room brings these students peace and joy and that they concoct all kinds of stories in their heads,” the artist said. “This will be their own room to have fun and relax in.”
Keys is looking forward to the day when his students with intellectual, developmental and behavioral needs experience the sensory room at the new school.
“It’s breathtaking,” he said, pointing to his favorite wall with a string of sting rays. “This is something that is magnificent.”
Within the sensory room, sound systems and visuals will add to the calming experience. Plans include using the room for physical and music therapy.
“This room will give out students a chance to calm down and refocus their attention,” he said. “We’ll also use experience as a behavior reinforcement.”
Ronen, 49, is a self-taught artist who moved to Houston from Israel with her husband 13 years ago.
Keys is amazed at the processes the artist used to create the sensory room with acrylic and water-based house paint. A wall projector allowed the artist to bring the Google-referenced likenesses of the sea creatures into the room. They soon took on their own personas.
The turtle is the cornerstone of where the story began.
“Once I complete a section, I have a key for the rest of the room,” Ronen said.
Mr. Turtle is Ronen’s favorite character in the sensory room because she associates his slow, thoughtful moves with her own. Keys favors the stingray because he is always looking and watching, much like a principal.
“The next thing you know, he comes out of nowhere,” Keys said, laughing at the commonalities.
The students who will use the room can be likened to the sea creatures: each is unique, individual and beautiful unto themselves.
“I was on a mission to make things right,” Ronen said, checking the room over for a last time. “And it felt good to know this room is for kids.”
(Approximately 150 students ages 5-22 from Alief, Houston and other surrounding school districts will attend ABS West in southwest Houston at 12772 Medfield Drive, through contracted services with their districts. Sections of the school accommodate life skills students with intellectual disabilities, adaptive behavior students and students on the autism spectrum. Hallmark features of the school include the sensory room, a playground for children with disabilities and rounded-corner rooms for safety and accessibility.)