TUPELO • Halloween delivered an early Christmas present to the Autism Center of North Mississippi.

With funds raised by the Tupelo Kiwanis through its first Costumes and Cocktails party, the autism center has installed a custom indoor playground for its clients.

A large room at the center has been transformed with a slide, playhouse, foam pit, rock walls, swings and criss crossing monkey bars. In the week since therapeutic playground been installed, it’s become a favorite of the children who receive therapy through the center.

“It’s gotten a huge reaction,” said executive director Brittany Cuevas. “Our therapists are loving it just as much as the clients.”

Instead of choosing iPads and computer games as their preferred activity, the children are requesting to go to the playground. The center’s staff is seeing their clients get so much more out of playground time than a reward for staying on task during therapy.

“I’ve never seen him smile as much as he did when he was on the slide,” behavior therapist Laken Jones said of one of her young clients. “It’s amazing to know that a few months ago, he had trouble even being around other children. Now he’s laughing, running, waiting his turn (and) enjoying playing with others.”

On the playground, the therapists are seeing the work continue while the children play, Cuevas said. They are communicating and interacting more, which children with autism generally struggle with.

“I knew it was going to be fun, but I had no idea how fast they would improve their (communication) skills,” Cuevas said.

Members of the Tupelo Kiwanis Club gathered Thursday to officially cut the ribbon on the playground. With help from Tupelo Parks and Recreation and Kiwanis International, the Kiwanis raised $28,000 toward the playground. The autism center matched the funds with an additional $7,000; the entire project cost $35,000.

“I know it’s going to be a great asset for the center,” said Tupelo Kiwanis president Gena Nolan.

From inception to completion, the project came together very quickly, Nolan said.

“We didn’t realize what a need there was,” Nolan said, until a group from the Kiwanis Club toured the center this summer.

Past president Brad Prewitt initiated the project, Nolan said. Kiwanis member Scott Maddox of M&M Heating and Cooling donated seed money for the event. Kiwanis member Brad Miller and wife Sherry spearheaded the Halloween event.

“It was super successful,” Nolan said.

The club, which meets at noon every Friday at the Tupelo Country Club, is planning to host the Costumes and Cocktails party again next year to benefit another community project.

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