Real Life: Shell Jones

This special needs mom was frustrated she couldn't find a place for her child to play — so she created her own.

A first-time mom at 34, Shell Jones was living a life of mommy bliss. But two and a half years in, that bubble popped when she, as she still does every morning, turned on the “Today” show and caught a segment on autism that hit a little close to home.

“Some of the things that they were saying, the light bulb started going off, and I’m like, this kind of sounds like him,” she says about her son, Duane Jr., now 20. At the time, she says she knew nothing about autism.

While her husband didn’t see anything amiss, she convinced him it was worth checking out. As the Joneses counted their blessings, the doctor confirmed Duane Jr. had autism, assuring them he would be “right where he needed to be by the time he was 7 or 8.” 

But he didn’t even speak until he was 8, says Jones, also mom to Markeith, 18, and Kori, 14.

She faced down scrutiny as she took him out and about, especially when they went out to play. Duane Jr. has always preferred the toddler play areas, she says. The toddlers didn’t mind having a “big” friend, but the side eyes and whispers from the other parents were soul-crushing.

“It was like, come on, there’s got to be a place that I can take him and not feel like I have to be on the defense all the time,” she remembers. There wasn’t. 

So she created one – Play-Place Autism and Special Needs Center in Sterling Heights, where kids can be themselves and parents can relax a bit. 

“I can really relate to these kids in that it’s just a matter of they want to be loved, they want to be understood, they want to be known,” Jones says. She wanted a space where the staff wraps their arms around the entire family.

Play-Place has been attracting families from throughout Michigan looking for a place to call their own for seven years. But she admits it hasn’t always been easy juggling her family, her needs and her business.

“There’s been a time or two where I’m like, you know what? I’m just totally exhausted of this whole business notion and I just want to go get a regular job and be normal. … So it’s a God mission, I like to say. When I feel like giving up, he’s right there on the shoulder saying, ‘Hey, that’s not a part of the plan here. Get yourself together.’”

Before starting her morning at Play-Place, Jones chatted about motherhood.

How has having a child with special needs changed you? 

“It really makes you look at the world, look at life, through a different lens. You appreciate the small things. I don’t get to see my friends and I don’t get to go on vacation or where I want to go on vacation because I have a child with special needs. You have to navigate in a different way. You have to think a little bit more. You have to prepare a little bit more,” she says.

“It makes you unselfish.”

She says she’s also learned the importance of me-time. “I can’t be there for any of them or the business if I don’t take care of myself.” 

It’s a message she shares with families at Play-Place through its new respite program. “It’s like, let us be that resource where you can at least recollect yourself and refresh and refocus on who you are and continue to be strong and viable for your family because it’s very important.”

Families use the respite program for anything from a show or simply grocery shopping in peace, she says. “Just those small little things make a difference in people’s lives.”

What have you learned that you wish someone would have told you early on? 

“Stay positive. You have to stay positive because the way that you view things will determine the actions that you take. So if you’re looking at it negatively, then you’re going to feel doomed. You’re going to feel unsupported and it takes a toll on you emotionally, physically, mentally. And then mentally, you won’t move because fear and doom paralyze people. … The old adage, ‘when your life gives you lemons, you make lemonade’ so, OK, they’ve got this diagnosis. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not terminal. You have to think positive.”

Fast Talk 

Your go-to coffee order: 

Latte with a shot of hazelnut. 

The most used app on your phone: 

Facebook. 

The one thing you would change about your life: 

More children. “I wanted four kids. I love kids.”

Your secret obsession:

 Writing R&B music. “I’m a very good writer.”

Your tagline:

Figure it out. “Whatever situation you’re in, you can figure it out. That’s what I tell my kids all the time, figure it out.”

What you hope your kids say about you:

“She is a good mom. Loving, attentive and a good mom.”

How to help

It’s so easy to make a difference! Play-Place Autism and Special Needs Center holds a monthly bottle drive that helps pay for programming and operations. Simply drop off your bottles behind its building at: 39337 Mound Road, Sterling Heights.


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