Coney night supports Special Needs Playground Program

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 13, 2015

 Counselor Kaitlyn Ashbaugh, of Roseville, sits with 5-year-old Landon Burns during the program at Veterans Memorial Park.

Counselor Kaitlyn Ashbaugh, of Roseville, sits with 5-year-old Landon Burns during the program at Veterans Memorial Park.

Photo by Deb Jacques


ST. CLAIR SHORES — Recognized as one of the best programs of its kind in the state, it takes a lot of support to keep the Special Needs Playground Program running each year.

And this summer, two events are planned to help defray the cost of the program: the Coney for Kids Dinner Night on July 16 and the Special Needs Golf Tournament on Aug. 5.

Parks and Recreation Director Greg Esler said the Coney for Kids Dinner Night is probably the most important fundraiser run each year to raise money for the Special Needs Playground Program.

Now that the city is paying for transportation by renting buses from Lake Shore Public Schools and has more children in the program who need one-on-one attention from counselors, the cost to provide the program is rising.

“The program obviously is expensive to run, and basically all the funds we had accumulated with all the fundraisers over the years are exhausted,” Esler said.

“As the years go on, it seems like the campers have higher needs and we have a higher one-to-one ratio of campers to counselors,” said Special Needs Playground Program Director Natalie Brennan. “We have, I would say, 15-20 kids a week that we would consider one-on-one that need more support, and with that we’ve had to hire more counselors than we have in the past.”

The campers also participate in arts and crafts, games, weekly field trips, Zumba and yoga.

“With that comes a cost,” Brennan said. “It’s hundreds of dollars to buy craft supplies and constantly keep baseball bats and whiffle balls and basketballs, just the little odds and ends that you don’t really think about, but they add up. It just really helps us to break even for the camp.”

There is a maximum of 50 campers in the special needs program each week, and Brennan said they receive calls every week from parents asking if there’s room for their child.

“The past few weeks have been completely full,” she said. “A majority of our campers started when they were 5 years old and they’ve (come) for 20 years, so the kids love to be here.”

This year’s Coney for Kids Dinner Night will take place at Veterans Memorial Park on Jefferson Avenue at Masonic Boulevard from 4-9 p.m. July 16. Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 years and younger and include food, music from the Groove Council from 7-9 p.m., children’s games, face painting and more.

“It’s a great night,” Esler said. “It’s a family fun event.”

The event is sponsored by Christian Financial Credit Union, Fred Maloof, National Coney Island, the St. Clair Shores Activities Committee and the St. Clair Shores Parks and Recreation Department.

Tickets are available in advance at Parks and Recreation, 20000 Stephens St., or at the gate. The event will be held rain or shine.

Also coming up this summer is the 2015 Special Needs Golf Tournament on Aug. 5 at the St. Clair Shores Golf Club. The entry fee is $100 and includes greens fees and cart, continental breakfast, lunch at the turn and a Hawaiian luau-style dinner. Shotgun start is at 8 a.m., and teams can sign up by calling (586) 445-5350.

“It sells out every year, and we’re looking for more sponsorship because ... everything goes toward the program,” Esler said.

Esler said students in the playground program don’t experience the summer slide that can cause so much more work in September because it is not just a loss of academic skills, but motor skills.

“In September, they’d have to start all over again,” he said. “With this nine-week program, the kids are going into September basically full-bore ahead.”

The Parks and Recreation Department also runs two special needs softball teams, a special needs soccer group and a basketball team that all help keep the children involved and happy throughout the year.

“It’s great,” he said. “There is a need. It’s important to go out and support these kids.”

The Special Needs Summer Playground Program is in its 19th year now in St. Clair Shores.

“We never take in a general fund dollar for this program,” Esler said. “Everything has been based on sponsorships and fees.

“My team brought this into the city. It’s gratifying the fact that the community has really got behind the kids and everything. People, count your blessings if you’ve got children who are healthy.”