The start of work on Temecula’s Special Needs Playground – the only such facility in a broad swath of Riverside County – marks another plateau of autism-related services in the city.
It also marks a far higher level of city spending, as it will boost Temecula’s investment in such services and facilities to about $940,000 this year.
It also revealed the inner churning that Mike Naggar, the Temecula councilman who has championed those programs and services, has experienced since his son, Liam, was diagnosed with autism about eight years ago.
That diagnosis was, Naggar said, a sudden emersion into that “shadow population out there.”
About 120 residents and city officials – as well as a pot-bellied “therapy” pig named “Baxter” – gathered for the June 5 ground-breaking ceremony in Margarita Community Park. They met near the hub of the 20-acre park, an area that will soon be the region’s first special-needs playground.
But the stage was set six months earlier, which was when the City Council agreed unanimously to allocate $875,000 for the design and construction of the first phase of the playground.
The funds for the first phase of the new playground will come from development and park fees, according to a Dec. 10, 2013, city staff report.
The existing playground at Margarita Community Park, which opened in 1995, had become outdated and was showing signs of wear, the staff report said. Rather than simply ordering replacement pieces for the aging playground, city officials instead shifted the focus of a two-acre section of the park to children age 2 through 8 who have special needs or physical or developmental disabilities.
The park-within-a-park is expected to open in September. It will include specialized fencing and play equipment. It is intended to be a place of fun and learning for special needs youth and a place where parents will feel relaxed because their children are safe, enclosed and entertained.
The new playground, when it opens, will be the most tangible sign of Temecula’s plunge into the special needs arena. That push began years ago, as Naggar began to chart a path between his roles as a council member and a parent of an autistic child.
The June 5 ceremony prompted Naggar to pause and reflect on that unusual path.
Naggar said he experienced an emotional roller coaster after his wife gave birth to their second child, Liam. Their joy turned to concern, anxiety and then dismay as Liam’s development slowed and he became withdrawn and failed to keep up with other toddlers his age, he said.
“In my foolishness, my family was devastated,” Naggar recalled.
Casting about for guidance, Naggar said he turned to friends, trusted associates and “some obscure organization” that was launched by the parents of a local autistic boy and is called Our Nicholas Foundation.
Naggar said he also grappled with whether to resign his council post, which he had held since 1999, to devote more time to his reeling family.
Naggar said he considers himself “a godly man,” and through prayer he realized that Liam’s presence in his life was meant to be.
“What I thought was going to be so tragic has turned out to be the greatest blessing in our lives,” Naggar said during the June 5 ceremony.
Autism is a spectrum of neurological disorders ranging from mild to severe that affect attention, learning, speech, social interaction and completion of tasks. The disorder has become the focus of mushrooming interest as research makes new inroads into its cause and long-term impacts.
The federal Centers for Disease Control recently announced a roughly 30 percent increase in the prevalence of the disorder. In 2012, the agency reported that 1 in 88 children (11.3 per 1,000 8-year-olds) had been identified with autism spectrum disorder. On March 27, the agency said that estimate had increased to 1 in 68 children (14.7 per 1,000 8-year-olds).
The disorder is five times more common among boys than girls. White children are more likely to be identified with the disorder than black or Hispanic youth. Children as young as two can be diagnosed with autism, although most are identified by age four, the CDC report noted.
Naggar said he ultimately decided to remain on the council and explore the range of local government and nonprofit services that were available for autistic youth. At that time, Temecula’s services to the developmentally disabled were limited to its High Hopes Program, which targets area residents ages 18 and older.
He concluded that more services were needed, and since then he has pressed for greater special needs programs and awareness in the city and the region.
Over a short span, Naggar and Temecula strengthened their ties to the nonprofit Our Nicholas Foundation, and the city has launched a range of autism-related services and programs.
With Naggar as its driving force, Temecula in 2010 formed the Southwest Riverside Autism Task Force. The group includes the county as well as the cities of Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, Canyon Lake, Menifee, Perris, Wildomar and Hemet.
Soon afterward, the group’s combined efforts created a Special Needs Resource Guide and an Autism Community Playbook. The city then created and staffed a new division aimed at serving special needs youth and adults. That program, which costs about $150,000 a year to staff and operate, is believed to be the first of its kind in the region.
The division is staffed by a so-called “inclusion services specialist,” a position that had no other local counterpart when it was created about three years ago.
Temecula officials then opted to join the nationwide Light it Up Blue campaign, which costs the city about $5,000 a year and is part of a global autism awareness effort. This year’s event included a task force meeting as well as a ceremony to celebrate illuminating the Civic Center with blue lights for a month.
In December, the city announced a partnership aimed at educating police, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, dispatchers and other emergency services personnel on how to better recognize and communicate with autistic citizens.
That awareness-raising training touched on such issues as the jarring effects of light and sound stimuli, communication difficulties, behavioral “meltdowns” and such wandering-related dangers as drowning and exposure.
The city also began offering specialized classes and informational sessions. One of the city’s offerings – the Supporting Kids Involving Parents program – targets infants to 6-year-olds who have been identified as autistic.
On March 11, the Temecula council approved Naggar’s recommendation to launch the Global Citizens Viticulture / Hospitality Vocational Program. The program, which is aimed at providing job training to special needs teens, will cost the city $10,500 through the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
A $25,000 grant will be sought to help continue the program. Grant recipients will be notified by September. It would Temecula cost about $35,000 to operate the program on a year-round basis, according to a city staff report.
Naggar, leaders of Our Nicholas Foundation and others then set their sights on opening a special needs playground. The project moved forward in December with council approval.
The closest such special needs playground is at Fairmont Park in Riverside, Amer Attar, Temecula’s principal engineer, said after the ground-breaking ceremony.
The first phase of the project calls for the installation of specialized fencing and play equipment. The fencing is intended to restrict access to one way in and one way out. That will give parents a measure of control over their children’s movements inside the playground.
Specialized swings will feature secure seats and lower- and upper-body restraints. A stationary device, which can accommodate a wheelchair, will glide back and forth. A “sensory garden” and sand-filled play areas are also planned.
Additional equipment, some of which makes sounds, will make it easy for children to slide, sway and crawl. One section of the playground is intended for children age 2 to 5. The other segment is intended for youth ages 5 to 8.
A future phase of the playground is expected to include a “splash pad” water feature. The splash pad, which is expected to cost another $500,000, is slated to be installed in fiscal year 2016-17. City officials expect to receive a $323,000 grant, possibly by August, that would offset some of the splash pad’s cost.
Naggar said he is already looking forward to bringing his son to the playground.
“It’s a good thing,” Naggar mused as the ceremony wound down. “I think I’ll be able to pull up a chair and say: ‘Son, go play,’ which is huge for a parent of special needs.”
Naggar said he hopes such playgrounds, as well as a spate of programs for special needs youth and adults, will someday sprout throughout the region.
“This is catching fire by what we’re doing here,” he said.