Keenan: Mother’s mission realized

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

“I searched the world over,” Shell Jones of Shelby Township said while standing in the almost completed facility for autistic children and families she has single-handedly built, “and I haven’t found anything like it.”

That’s likely because there is no other person quite like Jones. With steadfast perseverance, this 47-year-old mother of three has spent the last several years — ever since her oldest child Duane was diagnosed with autism — making her vision of an inclusive, accepting “play-powered” home away from home a reality.

“We’ve had people calling from all over the country asking if we’re open yet,” said Jones, in reference to the isolation that many families affected by autism feel when unpredictable tantrums and meltdowns restrict where and when you go out in public.

Jones’ vision is the Play-Place for Autistic Children, a 25,000-square-foot facility in Sterling Heights where kids on the autism spectrum can learn socialization through play and interaction, and parents can be assured their child is not only safe but thriving.

“It’s been an adventure,” Jones said, “but it’s been scary the whole way through because everything was new ground. Insurance didn’t even have a category for us.”

Taking her cue from Duane, who is now 12, Jones incorporated every activity that suited his needs into her plans for Play-Place. Because getting an autistic child’s hair cut can be a traumatic experience — the snipping and clicking of scissors close to the ears, the vibration and buzz of electric shavers — Play-Place has a Haircut Hut with specially trained staff.

Because Duane is never without his iPad, there’s a computer café. Because Duane once wrote his ABC’s in permanent marker all over the bathtub and walls (“I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad!” Jones said), there is a laser light chalk room here. And because Duane’s sense of balance is aided by spinning, a 40-seat Carousel complete with horses, zebras and giant teacups is being delivered from Florida in a couple weeks.

A calming room with soft lights, aromatherapy and squishy toys allows kids to regroup. There’s a Lego room, “Swing Central” with cuddle swings and walker swings, a 4-D movie theater and a mini shopping mall so kids can learn that stores are not scary places.

Macomb/St. Clair Autism Society will staff an office here and there are plans to contract with Macomb County Community Mental Health. Shell plans to have evening “resource management forums” where families can connect with professionals and learn about estate planning for parents of children with autism and where to get your child’s teeth cleaned without sedation.

“Just to have that ‘Me, too!’ conversation is worth everything,” Jones says.

Born and raised in Detroit, Shell has a degree in English from Wayne State University and experience as a legal assistant. She and her husband, Duane Sr., who runs an environmental firm, had little knowledge of autism when their first child was born. Duane Jr. was diagnosed at 2 and a half by Dr. Richard Solomon, medical director of Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters (P.L.A.Y.) project at the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Jones says she zeroed in on P.L.A.Y.’s focus on communication and the theory of play.

“Duane was much more receptive to learning by doing things in a fun way rather than sitting down with him one-n-one and trying to teach him.”

Like many parents, she says she’s had to develop thick skin when out in public.

“You do get the stares.” If necessary, she has to take Duane with her into the women’s bathroom with her. “I always apologize and explain that he has autism and needs assistance.” But, she says, people can still be unkind.

While deeply loved and fiercely protected by his younger sister, Kori, 6, and his newly adopted older brother Markeith, 9, Jones searched for years for a place where “Duane could be a kid and feel at home.” When she could not find it, she did what any Mama Bear would do for her cubs, she built one herself. “I realized back then this was something I was called to do,” she says.

Her website was up and running by 2011. In December 2013, she acquired the building on Long Lake and Mound. She now has three full-time employees

Through the process she and her staff have become proficient at grant writing and fundraising. “We’ve become quite savvy at the ask,” Jones said.

They’ve pursued grants big and small with equal vigor. Most everything has been donated. A “Hero Wall” lists donated service providers from carpenters and sprinkler fitters to iron workers, sheet metal workers and brick layers. Fifteen computers were donated from Motor City Free Geek; several iPads came from the Apple Store. There’s cabinetry from Lowe’s, and doors from Milliken Millwork Inc.

“It really snowballed,” Jones says. “The Guardian Alarm guy said he had a son who is affected, and he referred us to a carpenter who has a nephew with autism and it went on from there.”

A preview party for PAC will be held Oct.22, and Jones says she’s hoping to open soon after that. But she doesn’t have a firm date because the construction is all being donated.

“So, I’m on their watch,” she says smiling, and then adds: “and God’s, too.”