Shell Jones, the founder of the Play-Place Autism and Special Needs Center, stands inside her organization’s new building.

Shell Jones, the founder of the Play-Place Autism and Special Needs Center, stands inside her organization’s new building.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Special Needs Center finds new place to play

Nonprofit, city to partner on summer camp

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published March 15, 2019

 Volunteers George Gomez and Michelle Schmalenberg move items from the moving truck into the new Play-Place Autism and Special Needs Center location on Mound Road in Sterling Heights.

Volunteers George Gomez and Michelle Schmalenberg move items from the moving truck into the new Play-Place Autism and Special Needs Center location on Mound Road in Sterling Heights.

Photo by Deb Jacques

No matter your situation in life, moving day can be stressful.

Yet for the leadership at the Play-Place Autism and Special Needs Center, the hard work of moving from one building in Sterling Heights to another is mixed with optimism and hope. So says group founder and Executive Director Shell Jones.

“It’s just a matter of organizing and planning,” she said. “We are short on volunteers and manpower, but we’re doing what we have to do. We’ve got things being color-coded, boxed up, and we’re taking a nice, productive, peaceful pace.”

Jones said the move “kind of came pretty fast” and wasn’t something she had been contemplating for a long time. She said the primary reason for the move is finding a landlord that lets the nonprofit cut its rent by more than half.

“It allows us to grow the facility, develop new programs, and just be as creative as possible and not be hampered by a payment that is hard for us to make,” she said.

From its start, the Play-Place was designed to be a welcoming place where kids with autism or special needs could enjoy time with their families while having access to resources to deal with communication or socialization issues. The facility is funded through grants, charitable donations, admission fees and membership programs.

Jones said she got the idea to create the Play-Place in 2011 and formed the nonprofit, then called the Play-Place for Autistic Children, that same year. After years of planning, fundraising and grants for the building and equipment, the center had its original grand opening in August 2016. 

The old Play-Place location was at 41105 Technology Park Drive, near Mound and 18 Mile roads. The new building is at 39337 Mound Road, also in Sterling Heights, and “less than a mile away,” she said.

Jones called the move exciting, and she said the Special Needs Center will have its grand reopening June 1. She said the move has once again sparked a creative flair that over time has been somewhat buried beneath the financial aspects of running the nonprofit.

“We’ve got a lot of the old going on — all of the features from the old facility will be at the new facility,” she said. “We’re trying to add some things, upgrade some things and make it an even better home for so many of the Macomb and metro Macomb families.”

Jones called the latest transition to a different site a “very turnkey move,” adding that it only requires the Play-Place to build out two rooms. The Play-Place will keep its Lego castle, swing room, movie theater and other features. And it will offer important services too, such as applied behavior analysis therapy, she said.

“We’re looking to offer a sensory gym,” she added.

The old location was about 25,000 square feet, and the new one is about 17,000 square feet, she said. While the adjustment means cutting back on some office space, she said the room for programming and services remains about the same, with a “very open floor space.” 

In 2018, the organization rebranded and changed its name to the Play-Place Autism and Special Needs Center to reflect its outreach to older people, as well as people with other conditions. Jones said her organization helps thousands of people of “all ages, all cognitive levels and diagnoses,” adding that the demand for teen and adult events and activities continues to grow.

Besides the move, Jones said the Special Needs Center will be the testing site for this year’s first autism camp, which is sponsored by the Sterling Heights Parks and Recreation Department.

Rachel Mulawa, from the Sterling Heights Parks and Recreation Department, said the summer camp will run June 20-Aug. 3 for city residents at a discounted rate, as well as for nonresidents. The camp will be at the new Play-Place location and for individuals ages 10-26 who are on the autism spectrum, she explained. 

Mulawa said the camp will give the participants somewhere to go this summer where they can work on their social skills and engage in more sensory play. 

“Shell already has a Lego activity,” Mulawa said. “They’re allowing us to use their computer lab and craft space.”

Find out more about the Play-Place Autism and Special Needs Center in Sterling Heights by visiting autisticplayplace.org or by calling (586) 254-6533. Find out more about the Sterling Heights Parks and Recreation Department by visiting www.myshpr.net or by calling (586) 446-2700.