Lisa Kelly knows what it’s like to have people stare at her child. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.
And, from experience, Kelly knows how difficult it can be to find activities for her 10-year-old daughter Kaitlin Kelly, who is severely autistic.
Kaitlin was diagnosed eight years ago. She is cheery and energetic. She loves Sesame Street and receives an education, social counseling and speech and occupational therapy through Krejci Academy, an educational program presented by the nonprofit Little Friends in Naperville.
“She has different play skills than typical children her age,” said Kelly who lives in Lombard. “She’s mostly nonverbal and it was difficult. When other kids wanted to play with her, she didn’t want to play with them. They don’t understand. A lot of times, parents would stare and whisper. As parents of special needs children, we felt liked outcasts.”
Almost three years ago, Lisa had an idea to create a place where families of autistic children can play without fear of judgment from others and where parents can talk to one another about their experiences. That idea became a reality in June when she opened a play center named after her daughter: Kaitlin’s Hideout. It is at 526 Crescent Blvd., Glen Ellyn.
“The reason that I focused on autism is because of my experience with it and being comfortable with it,” said Lisa. “I know that there aren’t a lot (of opportunities) out there for kids with autism where there’s a lot more for kids with other disabilities. As far as I know, through my research, there isn’t anything like (Kaitlin’s Hideout) in the country except for one other place which is a drop-off in Atlanta.”
Since the opening, she sees about 22 or 23 families who come from Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Downers Grove, Naperville, Rockford, Gurnee and Des Plaines. Visitors walk down the stairs of Glen Ellyn’s Little Shops area and find bright polka dot curtains which reveal different areas. The center, which charges $10 a visit, is not a drop-off place. Families and caregivers can play with their children or let the children play independently.
Though Kelly is not a licensed therapist or educator, she relies on her experience to help parents as they come. There is a reading area where guests learn about alternative therapies or other topics from magazines or books or chat with other parents. One area has a canopied porch swing to calm children. A special dimmed hallway decorated with glow-in-the-dark stars and other designs gives youngsters relaxation space as they rest on pillows and feather beds. Another area has a mini-trampoline and a computer for games. Also available are a television set and a DVD player, art supplies and colored dough as well as other sensory toys.
Kelly wants people to understand that the center not only provides play areas but is a meeting place that encourages parents to support each other.
“It’s so important as a parent to have support from other parents,” said Kelly, who sometimes observes and interacts with the youngsters.
“To be honest, I have learned way more from other parents than I have anywhere else as far as taking care of my daughter.”
She wants to help not only those children who are coming but those who have been recently diagnosed. For example, she met visitors who just learned that their child is autistic.
“They were lost just like I was (at first),” she said. “You feel your whole world has crumbled and you don’t know what to expect. I can make them feel better. I hook them up with some resources.”
Because the center just opened, Kelly wants to implement specific programming such as a yoga night and themed activities on Sunday afternoons and form support groups. To help her, she networks with different agencies and therapists. She explained that her place has a nonprofit status with the state of Illinois, and she is raising funds to attain a federal nonprofit status.
Kelly works as a school bus driver. “I’m driving the school bus on a part-time basis to earn enough money to get that status,” she said. “I’d like to get it by the end of the year because that will open up opportunities possibly for grants and more contributions.”
One way of raising money is selling artwork created by Kaitlin and visiting children. The artwork can be purchased online at kaitlinshideout.com or at the center. Kelly said that 40 percent of the profit goes to the child’s family, 10 percent goes to an autism charity and the remainder goes toward the center’s costs.
For Hainesville residents Dawn Kaiser and her 8-year-old son, Sean Kaiser, the center is a must-see stop when she visits Glen Ellyn or is en route to see family in nearby suburbs. She learned about the center on Facebook.
In the past, family recreational activities would include going to the local grocery store and bookstores, Kaiser said. She had her son in a karate class but it was hard for him to stay focused. Also, she found that many park district programs for children with special needs are based on food, which made it impossible for Sean to participate because he is on a special diet.
The center has been a perfect place for Sean to read books or watch television. Kaiser uses her time to talk with other parents.
“It’s nice because he’s safe and I don’t have to worry about him running out,” she said. “I can just relax, which is really nice for me. When we’re out somewhere, I always have to worry about his behavior or not really staying with me at a store. Here, everything is closed and I can relax.”
She finds her chats with parents to be beneficial.
“(When I talk with) other people who don’t have kids with autism, they don’t really know what’s going on in your life,” Kaiser said. “It’s nice to find a common ground (at Kaitlin’s Hideout).”