By Donna Cornelius
When Mitchell’s Place was being built more than 10 years ago, Sandy Naramore often would drive by to check out the progress.
Naramore, who was a special education teacher at EPIC School, Cahaba Heights Elementary and Crestline Elementary, was excited to see the innovative facility on Overton Road take shape.
She had a connection with Mitchell Meisler, for whom the comprehensive center for kids with autism and other disabilities is named. Mitchell’s parents, Nancy and Allen Meisler, founded the school in 2005 after their son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
“I worked with Mitchell when he was a young boy,” Naramore said.
Recently, Naramore got to watch more construction at the school – a playground project. She had a better vantage point this time; she’s been the executive director of Mitchell’s Place for eight years, and her office windows look out onto the playground.
The school recently won a $20,000 grant for new play equipment through a video contest hosted by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group in conjunction with KaBoom!, a national nonprofit organization.
Mitchell’s Place was among nonprofits from across the United States that submitted videos for the Let’s Play Video Contest. The videos had to show the entrants’ need for an updated play space. Mitchell’s Place and four other nonprofits were chosen as finalists and won the grants.
“Emily Peterson, our grant writer, submitted the grant application on May 7,” Naramore said. “After we were selected as a finalist, the contest went to Facebook voting. We were notified we had won by email, but we’d also followed the voting on Facebook.”
Mitchell’s Place learned about the contest through a chance encounter, Naramore said.
“Our development team, Caroline Hubbard and Libby Matthews, were selling coupon books to benefit Mitchell’s Place outside Winn-Dixie,” she said. “Max Maxwell, who worked for Playscapes at the time, approached them and told them about the contest. We ended up using that company.”
Kit Clark, who’s with Birmingham marketing firm blr | further, headed up the video production, Naramore said.
Clark and others from the company “came out and donated their time and the production,” she said “The video showed the importance of play for meeting our children’s sensory needs. I credit the video with our win.”
Naramore said that the three pieces of playground equipment purchased with the grant money are for more than just having fun. Because autism impairs children’s ability to communicate and interact, playing may not come naturally for them.
“People assume that children know how to play,” Naramore said. “We have to teach our children.”
Becca Wood, the school’s occupational therapist, was “our go-to person” in choosing the new equipment, Naramore said.
“I depended on Becca,” she said “The rest of us could look at equipment, and say, ‘Wow, that looks like fun.’ She could look at the socialization and sensory issues.”
Naramore said two of the three new pieces address the students’ sensory needs for body awareness and balance. A spinner, a large round contraption, has seats for riders; other children can easily push it to make it turn around and around. A low-to-the-ground zip line has a bucket seat for little ones and a disk for older kids to ride on.
“We’re the only playground in Alabama with a zip line,” Naramore said.
A lime green dome that resembles a fanciful igloo encourages socialization, she said. During a recent morning break, two children played together inside the dome while another climbed on top.
“The children are having fun, and they’re interacting,” Naramore said.
The grant had rigorous requirements, including enlisting volunteers to help with the project, she said.
“We couldn’t have done this without Lowe’s Heroes,” she said. The Lowe’s Home Improvement volunteer program is made up of employees who adopt projects with nonprofits in their communities.
“Lowe’s Heroes approached us about helping,” Naramore said. “These men and women came and worked Monday through Friday. Lowe’s also donated mulch and new fencing with a gate.”
Parents Catey and Cody Hall also were instrumental, she said.
“Cody got a Bobcat for us to use,” Naramore said. “Their twins are here at Mitchell’s Place.”
The new equipment went up in one week.
“Oct. 26-30 was Build Week, and Oct. 28 was our actual Build Day,” she said.
Mitchell’s Place celebrated its new play space with a schoolwide festival and ribbon-cutting on Halloween.
The actual cost of the project was $26,000, so the school had to raise the additional money. Donations came in all sizes. The Nick’s Kids Foundation, the official charity of University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban and his family, contributed – and so did younger supporters.
“When Arden Pike, one of our 5-year-olds, heard we’d won, he went to his room and brought out his piggy bank,” Naramore said.
Hartwell Higgins, whose twin brother is a Mitchell’s Place graduate, donated her birthday money to the project, she said.
Mitchell’s Place offers several different programs. Its preschool for ages 2 to 6 incorporates children with autism and their typically developing peers. Teach Me is a one-on-one program for ages 2 to 6.
“Our outpatient program is for anyone up to age 18 who needs services like speech, occupational therapy, psychology, psychiatry and ABA – Applied Behavior Analysis,” Naramore said. “We also have after-school programs for ages 6 to 18, summer camp and diagnostic services.”
Naramore was the assistant principal at Greystone Elementary when she was approached by Nancy and Allen Meisler about becoming executive director at Mitchell’s Place. She’s loved her job ever since, she said, and seeing happy children at play is especially rewarding.
“One child was so hesitant about trying out the zip line,” she said. “But once we got him on there, we couldn’t get him off.”