NICEVILLE, Fla. -- Volunteerism is the engine of the Air Force Reserve’s worldwide mission. Closer to home, more than 80 919th Special Operations Wing reservists revved up their own volunteer spirit, joining other area military and community members in constructing a large playground for autistic children Aug. 23-28 here.
“The attitude of (Duke) volunteers has been wonderful, because they’re committed to excellence and truly want to see things through from beginning to end,” said Staci Berryman, co-founder and executive director of the Emerald Coast Autism Center, over the noise of whirring power tools and hammers pounding away at the bustling construction site behind her. “To have (Duke Airmen) come out on some of the hottest days this summer and commit and be here just killing it in this heat every single day, means the world to us.”
The ECAC is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and improving the lives of young children with autism and related disabilities in Okaloosa and Walton counties and surrounding areas, according to its website. The playground will supplement the organization’s $2.5 million, 15,225-square-foot school and therapy center, scheduled to open in September.
One of the 919th SOW’s volunteers, Master Sgt. Tamara Stevenson, a 919th Special Operations Maintenance Squadron avionics systems technician, wiped beads of sweat from her brow as she paused for a moment in the nearly 100-degree heat on her third day of working four-hour shifts at the site.
“I think it’s great to give back to the community,” she said, “I have a nephew with autism who’s an adult now, so I felt like this was an excellent cause -- and I’m really having a good time.”
Stevenson said she kept busy using a circular saw to cut boards and with countersinking hardware onto wood planking sections for the playground’s framework.
With the variety of equipment available on the new grounds, therapists can build a student’s skills both physically and socially. Completing one physical task may challenge a student to use his or her balance, coordination, and upper body strength. Alternately, it may be a task best completed with a peer, which would require social interaction.
Tech. Sgt. Matthew Luecht, an avionics maintainer, led Duke’s massive volunteer drive in his role as president of the base’s Focus 5/6 organization. The chapter, he noted, received strong support from their Duke sister organizations – Top 3 and Chiefs Group – which rallied dozens of additional volunteers.
“It’s nice to see all the planning, supply delivery and the countless hours we spent has paid off,” Luecht said as he prepared to begin another shift. “I think it helps exemplify the phrase Citizen Airmen in giving back to our community.”
The Duke volunteer effort united reservists from a diverse set of organizations and specialties throughout the wing.
“We’re a special part of the military community, and for us to get people from different shops that don’t really interact with each other on a daily basis and build bonds doing this is really a great thing,” Luecht said.
In 2013, the locally-operated school and therapy center entered into an agreement with Northwest Florida State College, that paved the way for the new facility.