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Swing sets, slides and climbing walls abound in an unassuming office building on Elrod Avenue.

Foam tiles of every color cover the floor, and monkey bars crisscross the ceiling. Tracks run from wall to wall, with a set of swings to attach to trolleys which slide from end to end.

On one wall, climbing handholds and lighted tunnels lead to a platform, culminating in a leap towards a pit filled with foam cubes.

But it’s not just fun and games at the Starfish Therapy Youth Center in Coos Bay.

The new program set to open in April is Waterfall Community Health Center’s response to a lack of therapy services for youth diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and it includes the one-of-a-kind sensory gym as its key feature.

“It looks like play, but we’re working on so many other skills as well,” said Stefanie Austin, the center’s occupational therapist. “It can help stimulate the senses and challenge the sensory systems.”

According to Austin, time in the sensory gym — the only one in the state built by Fun Factory, which bills itself as the leading manufacturer of the systems — can be used as part of therapy to provide the sensory stimulation youth with autism are seeking.

What’s more, time in the gym can be used to familiarize clients with sensations they might struggle with. Certain swings, for example, can help a child who has gravitational sensitivity get used to the feeling of having their feet off the ground, Austin said.

Time in the gym is paired with other types of therapy offered through the program.

“We can address every difficulty that child or family is facing in everyday life,” Austin said.

Down the hall, another room will be designated for feeding therapy, which aims to help familiarize children with different types of foods they might be averse to eating.

“We’ll have kids where the only thing they’ll eat is baby carrots, or the only thing they’ll eat is chicken nuggets,” said Lance Nelson, Waterfall’s chief innovation officer and the center’s program manager.

In another corner of the building, staff are putting the final touches on a calming room.

“It’s kind of the opposite of the sensory gym,” Nelson said, adding a child can go to the calming room if they begin to feel overstimulated.

The walls around the calming room, as well as a bank of offices for exams and a social play room, are all new to the building: Waterfall is nearly complete with the renovations of the 11,000 square foot ground floor, which was home to a day care center before it was vacated due to improper pesticide use in 2017.

When they arrived, Nelson said the Waterfall team found it much as it had been left, with toys, office supplies and paperwork still strewn about as it had been years before.

Now, the building is filling a need in the community, according to Nelson and Austin.

“The Coos Bay, North Bend school districts, they’ve been begging for something like this for years and years,” Nelson said.

Currently, there’s no specialized therapy services for youth with autism in Coos County — Nelson said the closest services are in Eugene and Roseburg, and are often smaller or less comprehensive than parents are looking for (not to mention that the two hours it takes to drive there can be a challenge in itself).

“My goal is that we have such a robust program that we have people traveling from Eugene or Roseburg to us,” Nelson said.

Being the only program of its kind in Southwestern Oregon, that’s certainly possible. But the Waterfall program is already unique: Nelson said a nonprofit running this type of therapy is practically unheard of, and it might make Waterfall one of the only federally qualified health center to serve youth with autism.

The program is open for children up to 21 years old, and Nelson said the referrals it’s already gotten for teenage clients show the need in the community.

“We’ll have some adolescents who’ve needed some of these services for years but they didn’t because they live here,” Nelson said.

The idea began a few years ago on the heels of Waterfall’s growing mental health services and school-based programs. Waterfall was approached about proposing a program, and when Nelson pitched the idea to the nonprofit’s administrators, they gave him the green light.

Of course, that’s come with challenges: The program isn’t cheap. Waterfall receives some federal funds, and will bill private insurance and Oregon Health Plan for services, but a key principle of the nonprofit is that it doesn’t turn away patients for their lack of ability to pay.

“This investment is significant,” Nelson said. “But we have a great administrative team that says, ‘if we’re going to do this, we want to do it right.’”

What’s more, Nelson needed to bring together the right team to build the program from the ground up, since there aren’t as many of the necessary professionals in Coos County as one might find in a more populated area.

That’s where Austin came in: She’ll be joining a behavior analyst coming from Phoenix and a speech pathologist switching jobs in the community to get Starfish up and running.

Austin said the move from her old job in Salt Lake City is one she’d been hoping to make.

“I always wanted at some point in my career to create a program,” Austin said.

An autism spectrum disorder diagnosis is required to qualify for the program at this time, and registration typically requires a referral. More information about how to register or get on the waitlist is available online at www.wfall.org/starfish/.

The name of the program, Starfish, gives some insight into the level of community need Nelson and Austin are hoping to fill: In addition to being a symbol of regeneration and growth, the name refers to the “starfish story,” a parable about the impact one person can make.

In that story, someone is walking on a beach covered in exposed starfish, tossing them into the ocean one by one to keep them out of the sun. When someone else stops and points out how many starfish there are in need of help, the starfish thrower isn’t deterred by the scale of the problem.

“People say, ‘isn’t the need overwhelming?’ Yes, it is, but it mattered to that one,” Nelson said.

This story was updated from the version used in print to reflect that the clinic will open sometime in April.

Reporter Zack Demars can be reached at worldnews3@countrymedia.net.

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