by Janelle Jessen (Siloam Springs Herald Leader)
Ability Tree celebrated the grand opening of its new rest and recreation facility on Saturday with guest speakers, a ribbon cutting and an open house.
The $2.35 million facility, located at 2350 E. Tahlequah St., includes a 10,000-square-foot indoor space with customized sensory spaces and a gym, as well as a 6,000-square-foot fully accessible outdoor play space with rubberized surfaces and a covered driveway where parents can drop off their children.
Operations at the new building began after school on Tuesday, according to director Joe Butler, who co-founded the nonprofit with his wife Jen Butler.
"It is really just hard to put into words what God has done and how the community has invested in (Ability Tree) and to see the vision come to reality is overwhelming," Joe Butler said. "We are just overjoyed by what God has done and by how the community has embraced it and the doors this will open in other communities, and we hope other communities will kind of model what we have done."
Butler described Ability Tree as a faith-based Boys & Girls Club for special needs children and their families. The organization provides members with after-school care and nights out for parents on weekends. At the new location, Ability Tree will be expanding to provide community play during the day on weekdays and weekends for preschool children of all abilities under parent supervision, with options to pay by the hour or purchase punch cards, he said.
The new building features rooms for sensory play, multipurpose sports and training, calming and learning, and arts and crafts, as well as a nurse's station and executive offices, Butler said. Currently Ability Tree serves between 90 to 100 families, including about 80 to 100 children through after-school and weekend programs, and another 100 children through inclusive events. The new building will allow Ability Tree to eventually quadruple the number of children served with the addition of staff members and volunteers, he said.
The grand opening came just 10 months after ground was broken on the facility in March. Special speakers during the ceremony on Saturday included the Rev. Wayne Huffman, senior director of intercultural ministries for the Assemblies of God; the Rev. Larry Moore, president and superintendent of the Arkansas District of the Assemblies of God; and Jeff Soderquist, of the Soderquist Family Foundation.
Joe and Jen Butler are U.S. missionaries to people with disabilities for the Assemblies of God denomination, but Ability Tree is a separate nonprofit corporation that is nondenominational and works with a variety of denominations and fellowships, Joe Butler said.
The grand opening was also attended by officials from Ability Tree's other locations in New Jersey, Florida and Texas.
Heather Grunig and her 8-year-old daughter Carrie were playing in the multi-sensory room during the open house on Saturday. Grunig, who has four children, said Ability Tree has become a safe place for her family over the past two years that they have been members of the organization.
"They look forward to coming," Grunig said. "It's a good place for them where they feel loved and they feel safe and they feel accepted."
She said her children were very excited about the grand opening of the new facility, so much so that Carrie told her during the grand opening ceremony "This is my home."
"We loved the other facility, but walking into the space, there are so many other possibilities," she said. "My oldest is 11, and was so excited to see the gym, and it's exciting to be a part of something that loves people and wants to accept people and their mission is beautiful. It makes life a lot more simple when you are surrounded by people who are supportive and embracing."
The new facility is 90 percent complete, but is still waiting on a few features to be installed, such as a climbing wall, padded walls and grandioso chimes, a musical instrument for the outdoor playground, Butler said. The features should be complete by the end of the month, he said.
Ability Tree will be leasing out parts of its former building at 300 E. Main for office space, and has plans to create an art center studio for people of all abilities and store in the front of the building, Butler said. Ability Tree is looking to launch the art program in spring 2020, he said.
More information about Ability Tree is available at abilitytree.org.