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When her son was diagnosed with autism, Shell Jones of Shelby Township couldn’t find a place where he could be himself. So she created one: Play-Place for Autism. She had no trouble finding people who wanted to be a part of it. Robin Buckson, The Detroit News

When her son was diagnosed with autism, Shell Jones couldn’t find a place where he could be himself. So she created one in Macomb County for special needs children from all southeast Michigan to enjoy

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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-of-a-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, Play-Place’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 children 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 Play-Place since last October.

Jones admits there were times during her journey to create Play-Place — 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.”

Shell Jones

Age: 49

Occupation: Founder and board president, Play-Place for Autistic Children

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Wayne State University.

Family: Husband, Duane; three children

Why honored: For creating a haven for special needs families and their children

Other Michiganians:Odis Bellinger | Debbie Dingell | Allie Greenleaf Maldonado | Kary L. Moss | Stephen R. Polk | Matthew Simoncini | Fred Upton | Mark Wallace

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