Shell Jones


The Detroit News - - Front Page -

Be­ing brought to tears is an al­most daily part of Shell Jones’ job. That hap­pens when you’ve ded­i­cated more than five years of your life to cre­at­ing a one-ofa-kind cen­ter in Ma­comb County for chil­dren on the autism spec­trum and with other spe­cial needs, a place in­spired by your own son.

There was a lit­tle boy who was de­ter­mined to fin­ish an ob­sta­cle course and asked Jones to let him keep try­ing. And Jones re­mem­bers the boy who wrote his name for the first time in the cen­ter’s laser light room. It brought his mom and the en­tire staff to tears.

“It’s those small things that we cel­e­brate here,” said Jones, PlayPlace’s founder.

Play-Place, which of­fi­cially opened last year in Ster­ling Heights, comes from a very per­sonal place for Jones of Shelby Town­ship. Her son, Duane Jr., now 14, was di­ag­nosed with autism as a tod­dler. Jones re­mem­bered how much he loved go­ing to Chuck E. Cheese but how chal­leng­ing it was to go out in pub­lic — the looks, the stares.

The idea of cre­at­ing a play fa­cil­ity first came to her in 2011. Her mother, who was her pri­mary babysit­ter for Duane, was bat­tling can­cer. She wor­ried about help­ing Duane be­come as in­de­pen­dent as pos­si­ble.

“I searched the In­ter­net and there was no place I could take him,” she said. So Jones de­cided to cre­ate such a place. At first, she wanted to cre­ate some­thing small with a just a few rooms with a ball pit and a swing. But the idea grew.

To­day, the 25,000-square-foot Play-Place, which cost $1.7 mil­lion to build, draws spe­cial needs chil-


Fam­ily: dren and adults of all ages and abil­i­ties from across south­east Michi­gan. It fea­tures a Lego room, com­puter lab, carousel, cin­ema, art room, even a hair­cut hut since groom­ing can be so chal­leng­ing for kids with spe­cial needs. Many of the cen­ter’s fea­tures, which all have a ther­a­peu­tic in­tent though they’re dis­guised as play, were in­spired by Jones’ own ex­pe­ri­ence with Duane. The carousel, for ex­am­ple, is sim­i­lar to one at Lake­side Mall in Ster­ling Heights that Duane loved to ride.

“I was try­ing to make this a place where kids like Duane will want to be here,” said Jones, 49.

So far, they do. The cen­ter drew 4,100 walk-in vis­its dur­ing its first year and more than 2,500 stu­dents from 70 schools, camps and adult groups at­tended field trips at PlayPlace since last Oc­to­ber.

Jones ad­mits there were times dur­ing her jour­ney to cre­ate PlayPlace — hold­ing fundrais­ers, seek­ing do­na­tions — that she felt like she was in over head.

“We got so many noes,” Jones re­mem­bered, “but then there would be that mom who would say ‘Thank you,’ and that would keep me go­ing.”

Jones is al­ready think­ing about what’s next. She’d like to buy an­other 25,000 square feet next to the cur­rent fa­cil­ity to add a pool and gym.

Look­ing back on it all, Jones said she never ex­pected she would’ve wound up where she is. But it’s amaz­ing, she said.

“God works in mys­te­ri­ous ways. And he has a good sense of hu­mor,” Jones said. “...I’m a ser­vant. I’m here to serve th­ese kids and th­ese fam­i­lies. That’s my job.” Why hon­ored: For cre­at­ing a haven for spe­cial needs fam­i­lies and their chil­dren

Mau­reen Feighan

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