VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – During Autism Awareness month, a new state-of-the-art facility is under construction in Virginia Beach.

Designers say it will be the largest community facility for autism in Hampton Roads.

“It started with, I think it was five or six kids with autism, including my little brother, in my board president’s kitchen for one week of summer camp,” said Tyler Williamson.

Williamson reflects on the creation of non-profit Families of Autistic Children of Tidewater (FACT) back in 1997. Fast forward to today, he is the executive director of FACT standing in a construction zone at the organization’s new facility.

“This is a piece that we’re really excited about. It’ll be very unique. It’ll be, as far as I know, the biggest sensory gym in Virginia Beach. It’s going to have slides, a foam pit, ziplines, all different kinds of climbing walls, areas under the playset where you can go and do dry erase boards, various different things. My favorite piece is over here. We’re going to have a giant area with tons of different swings. So, a lot of individuals with autism really like repetitive motion.”

Williamson says most of those swings can hold up to 375lbs.

“We service ages 6-40, and we want something that can really service all of those age ranges.”

Williamson says a number of services will be provided for families.

“Sentara is going to be doing physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy which is a big need and service for our families. We’re going to have the Autism Society. They provide a lot of great parent trainings, a great resource guide, and they do a number of great programs for individuals with autism as well,” Williamson explained. “We have a guy named Al Howard of Leader Counseling, and he is actually a mental health professional. We thought that was a very important thing to have on site. He’s a licensed social worker who does mental health, psychotherapy, for all different individuals, but he specializes in individuals with autism who have some challenges with communication.”

FACT is also bringing in a couple of organizations to help with the new facility.

“We’re bringing two new organizations, two non-profits that don’t provide services in Hampton Roads yet. Easterseals, they’re a pretty big non-profit, but they don’t do anything in this area yet, and so they’re coming in and they’re going to renovate a portion of downstairs and create a teaching kitchen where they teach individuals with all types of disabilities how to learn how to cook and live independently and develop those skills. Aid Another is another great local non-profit. They are going to be doing some social and recreational programs. Not dissimilar from ours, but they do dances, they do sports and everything, but they work with individuals with all disabilities. CA Human Services is coming from Richmond. They do more adult focus.”

Williamson also explained how the facility will have a conference room that will look into the sensory gym.

“We’re able to do these floor-to-ceiling windows, and we’re going to put one way film on them so you can see out in to the sensory gym, but the kids can’t see in, and then we can do parent trainings in here while their kids are simultaneously doing sensory gym out there,” said Williamson.

The top floor of the building holds a gathering place for people of all ages who use the facility. There they will learn life lessons, hold dances, and just have fun.

“To get into this building, we’re lucky enough to have a very generous donor who owns the building who has been supporting us for years, the DeCroix family. When we were looking for a home, (Daryl DeCroix) asked me, ‘Well what do you need?’ I was like, ‘I need space for a gym, you know, where I can do my basketball programs, and enough space for 120 people which is how many people we have on site any given day of our summer camp which is our biggest program.’ This actually used to be his old call center. After a while of negotiating, we worked out essentially a 30-year lease that is at basically half of market value, which he’s giving to us. Another thing our board has always wanted was not just a space for us, but a space for so many different services that families with autism need. So having a nice, centralized hub where they can go and receive a multitude to services all in one location, so a one stop shop.”

Let’s talk numbers. The 21,900 square foot resource center will feature:

  • a 5,000 square foot multi-purpose Friendship Hall for Summer Camps and year-round art, music, leisure, social, and educational programs
  • a 1,900 square foot sensory gym, the largest in Virginia Beach
  • a 1,900 square foot gym for sport
  • office and activity spaces for other organizations benefiting those with autism

You can find FACT’s Autism Resource Center on Virginia Beach Boulevard right off the Rosemont Exit in Virginia Beach. The ribbon cutting will be in mid-June just in time for FACT’s summer camp, which is its flagship program.

If you would like to donate to FACT, click here.