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Over 400 military volunteers, including more than 120 Gulf Coast airmen from Eglin Air Force Base, helped in the construction of Emerald Coast Autism Center’s new playground at the therapy center on the grounds of Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Fla.

From August 22-28, military volunteers worked in four-hour shifts to complete the build. Those who signed up to help were asked to fill out a skills assessment so they could be assigned work that would have the most impact for the new facility.

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Local military and community volunteers work to construct new playground and therapy equipment at the Emerald Coast Autism Center in Niceville, Fla., Aug. 26. (Dan Neely/Special to The Pulse)

One of those volunteers was Chief Master Sgt. Joseph M. Moody, superintendent of 96th Mission Support Group at Eglin.

“This was such a special project,” said Moody. “I was so impressed with how many Airmen were out there. There were just so many volunteering their time and skills to complete a beautiful playground for a wonderful cause.”

Airmen provided much of the construction labor, with other service members performing similar tasks such as ground cover and fencing. Projects included building slides, mini climbing walls, monkey bars, and disability-accessible ramps and swings.

“We had an enormous amount of volunteer support from our military community,” said Heidi Blalock, co-founder of ECAC.

Blalock also noted seven of the 12 project captains were military. Project captains helped organize, plan, set up, and manage the build from planning through completion.

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Local military and community volunteers work to construct new playground and therapy equipment at the Emerald Coast Autism Center in Niceville, Fla., Aug. 26. (Dan Neely/Special to The Pulse)

“The playground will be a great motivator for our students,” said Blalock. “We will be able to use it during one-on-one therapy to help our children learn how to engage in and develop appropriate play skills, improve gross motor skills and achieve social goals.”

With the variety of equipment available on the new grounds, therapists can build their student’s skills both physically and socially. Completing one physical task may challenge a student to use his or her balance, coordination, and upper body strength. Alternately, it may be a task best completed with a peer, which would require social interaction.

The budget for the playground only allowed the center to purchase the equipment. In order to make the desired playground feasible, the center needed a volunteer workforce. The estimated savings on labor was nearly $250,000.

Currently, nearly 60 percent of ECAC’s students are from military affiliated families; children of reservists, active duty, and retirees. Eighty students are serviced by ECAC along with a months- to year-long waiting list. The larger building will alleviate the wait time and allow for quicker access by new or continuing students. The new center on is scheduled to open October 1.

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