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Tech School students build wooden memory boxes for dementia patients

SUNDERLAND — They’re called “shadow boxes.” Mounted outside a person’s room, these colorful wooden boxes hold pictures and small knickknacks — clues designed to confidently lead those with deteriorating minds back home.

The New England Health Center, a Sunderland-based nursing home and rehabilitation facility, wanted 20 shadow boxes for two new wings in a refurbished dementia unit. So, health center staff contacted Franklin County Technical School earlier this fall and connected with two junior carpentry students, who agreed to take on the project.

Jordan Momaney and Shauntel Parker said the four weeks they logged on the project were frustrating but rewarding.

With the help of instructor Michael Nobrega, they came up with a design, created a list of needed materials, created a prototype to figure out the production steps and then proceeded to build, assemble and paint 20 boxes for the health center.

The square pine wood boxes (1 foot by 1 foot, and 3 inches deep) are divided into four smaller units where residents will be able to place their keepsakes. They each include a sliding glass door on the front and were painted one of four bright colors.

For the students, it was an experience in actual carpentry production — complete with real problems that can occur on a job. Parker, a 16-year-old Ashfield resident, said that a single wooden piece cut too short could mess up a whole box.

“I kept repeating to myself (that) it was for a good cause. These people deserve it,” she said.

Michael Stroetzel — who has managed the health care facility since spring 2012, back when it was the Cozy Corner Nursing and Rehabilitation Center — was very pleased with the final result.

The shadow boxes, which connect residents to their own past and present, is just one form of sensory stimulation that the health center is introducing in the newly refurbished dementia wing. Color schemes and the installation of new artwork also factor into the redesign, he said.

For Tech School juniors like Momaney and Parker, community service projects are a key part of the Tech School’s carpentry curriculum.

After learning fundamentals and intermediate skills in their first two years, students engage in hands-on projects to improve their skills and become aware of future career and education options, said Nobrega.

Momaney, a 16-year-old Northfield resident, said she is unsure what she wants to do for a career — but plans on always doing carpentry on the side.

And Parker, who plans to enlist in the Navy, said the skills she is learning will be useful for any future home renovation projects she takes on.

You can reach Chris Shores at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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