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Center for Autism Education dedicates playground in memory of loved educator

A private dedication ceremony was held on May 19 at The Center for Autism Education (CAE) in St. Charles to dedicate its new outdoor sensory and recreational center in memory of a beloved special education teacher. 

Gigi Spies
Gigi Spies

Guillermina “Gigi” Spies passed away from COVID-19 in January. 

The CAE, a nonprofit, instructional day facility, recently moved to a new location in St. Peters with more space to continue to expand its programming and serve more students in the community. The center had a sensory playground at its previous location, but the new location did not. So, in 2019, the CAE started its Play and Learn Campaign to raise funds for an outdoor sensory and recreational center for its students. The goal: $230,000. 

CAE students have unique sensory needs and the playground promised to provide a necessary space for students to engage with peers safely while getting the sensory stimulation they require, such as swinging, climbing, rocking, running and jumping. Since the center has students up to age 21, the playground accommodates students up to 300 pounds. 

For students with autism and other behavioral challenges, access to a safe recreational space is a necessity for adequate learning. Most of CAE’s students cannot go to local parks due to safety concerns, so having a playground at the center allows social interactions to occur safely. For many students, the playground is also vital to success inside the classroom.

Hanne Hawkins, CAE’s director of development, explained, “Without a sensory playground, we noticed quickly that behaviors got worse in our students.” 

Local nonprofit group, Play for All [creators of Zachary’s Playground in Lake Saint Louis and Brendan’s Playground in O’Fallon] worked with CAE throughout the campaign. However, just as the Play and Learn Campaign was gaining traction, COVID-19 hit the area, playgrounds closed and donations stalled. In November 2020, a $75,000 grant from the Developmental Disabilities Resource Board of St. Charles County helped CAE to reach its campaign goal.

The impact of the new playground is invaluable. Hawkins said she expects to see a decrease in unsafe behavior and an increase in appropriate social interaction. 

“It’s so much more than a playground. It’s a teaching tool. Many of our students don’t know how to engage with peers or play appropriately, so this is a safe space for them to learn,” Hawkins said. “Most importantly, it’s sensory engagement.”

The center is still grieving over the recent loss of Spies, who worked at the center for almost a decade. The progress made by many students at the center is a direct result of her time, patience and unconditional love.  

“Gigi was everyone’s mother,” Hawkins said. “She was always there for you, but she also kept you accountable. This job is physically, emotionally and mentally demanding, but Gigi never gave up on anyone. 

“She made it her personal responsibility to make sure everyone’s heads and hearts were in the right place and she did more than was ever expected in her role. We are trying to do our best to live up to the example she left for all of us and live like she did – put your heart into everything you do and treat everyone with respect, no matter their abilities.”

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