Sterling HeightsAugust 15, 2012
Autistic play facility earns diners’ dollars
By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer
Her son is, for the most part, oblivious to it, but Shell Jones sees the stares, hears the whispers, when he doesn’t act like other children his age in social settings.
Diagnosed with autism at age 2 ½, he just recently, at age 9, became verbal. For Jones’ family, it’s a miraculous milestone; for others, it’s one long since passed and taken for granted.
“It’s been a long battle,” said Jones, “but I’m up for the fight.”
The Shelby Township resident’s story won the hearts — and votes — of attendees at Christian Financial Credit Union’s second annual CU@SOUP event Aug. 7, where her pitch for the Play Place for Autistic Children earned her nearly $1,400 toward fulfilling her dream.
CFCU whittled seven applicants down to three finalists to compete in the contest, held at Velocity Collaboration Center in Sterling Heights. The entrepreneurs had 10 minutes to present their business plans to an audience of about 50 — who paid a nominal fee for a soup and salad dinner and voting privileges — and five minutes to field questions.
The crowd then cast ballots to determine who would receive the admission proceeds and a $1,000 micro-grant from the Michigan Credit Union Foundation.
Joining Jones onstage were Dave Thomas, who produces video resumes, and Bob Walz and Steve Salter of Digital Vault, a company that inventories customers’ household possessions and maintains an off-site database for insurance purposes in case of theft, fire or natural disaster.
“I feel like I’m on ‘Shark Tank,’ only with 50 sharks, so I have to sell each one of you,” quipped Walz, who touted Digital Vault as the solution to a time-consuming task homeowners often vow to do, but never get around to.
Thomas promoted his product as an innovative way to differentiate job seekers amid crowded candidate fields, while Jones’ presentation interspersed general facts about the prevalence and impact of autism with her family’s personal account.
According to Jones, one in 88 children in the United States is born with autism, and more kids will be diagnosed with it this year than AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined. Michigan, she added, is the fourth most autism-affected state.
Jones described the Play Place for Autistic Children as “a Chuck E. Cheese for special needs kids,” with a playscape, a computer café, a party area, a laser light chalkboard room, a 4-D theater, and a mixture of other attractions to promote motor skills, and emotional, social and cognitive development.
The idea, she said, is to incorporate play therapy while creating a “haven of hope” for kids who often are excluded from the typical peer social experiences, like birthday parties and sleepovers.
The facility will accommodate children of all ages — and even autistic individuals into their mid-20s — and remain open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. for maximum flexibility, she said.
For parents, a coffee shop section will provide respite and encourage camaraderie, and occasional “resource management” nights will link them with information on autism therapies and other coping mechanisms, said Jones.
She said she’s currently eyeing the 15 Mile and Van Dyke area in Sterling Heights for the venture, seeing it as a central location for customers from Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and St. Clair counties. She hopes to open by March 2013.
It will operate as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, and Jones said she’s been raising money through fundraisers, with upcoming events including a Sept. 29 pancake breakfast in Clinton Township.
Rebekah Johnson, CFCU’s marketing manager, said CU@SOUP — which was inspired by similar events in Detroit — gives entrepreneurs a platform to promote their endeavors while informing attendees on “what folks in their own community, their own neighbors, are doing.”
“I think there are just … so many great business ideas in this area, especially in Sterling Heights and Macomb County,” she said before the event, “and this is just an opportunity for people not only to win a micro-grant to help get their business off the ground, but also an opportunity to perfect their pitch and get some feedback from the audience.”
And with one event under their belt, they can claim a 100 percent success rate thus far. Last year’s victor, Lynn Biliti — who was among voters Aug. 7 and who supplied elaborate cupcakes for dessert — said things have been nonstop since she opened Incredible Edibles in Roseville last December, a few months after her win.
Biliti said she began brainstorming ideas to “reinvent” herself after losing her longtime job with a national retailer and latched on to the idea of a dessert shop after developing a fondness for baking cakes for friends.
The business, she said, has been everything she’d hoped — “that and more.”
“It’s a lot of hours; it’s a lot of hard work — it’s 80-90 hours a week, and that’s even in the off-season,” she said. “But we like what we do, and we like who we do it for.”
CFCU’s new Sterling Heights location, on Lakeside Circle, near Lakeside Mall, opens Aug. 25. For more information, visit www.christianfinancialcu.org.
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