GREENWOOD - Chip Ehlers has always struggled with managing his emotions and interacting with others.
He has autism and deals with the challenges associated with the condition every day.
Now 18, Chip said as a child, the playground was always a place where he could find solace and clear his head when the world began to feel out of control.
"It helped big time," he said. "It pretty much helped me speak normal, like the rest of the kids. I did know there was some differences. Like, I couldn't sit on top of the monkey bars like all the other kids could. I was too scared to do that like the other kids did. But honestly it really did help me calm down if I was feeling overwhelmed, and I really enjoyed having a playground."
In early March, Chip made that relief available to a group of young children who face similar challenges. He's a member of Boy Scout Troop 53, and over the course of three days, Chip and his fellow Scouts constructed a fully equipped playground for the children at the Project Hope Foundation's Greenwood Clinic - a nonprofit that specializes in offering services to children with autism and their families.
The playground - which sits next to Project Hope's Greenwood Clinic - includes features such as slides, monkey bars and a swing set with swings chosen specifically to meet the needs of children with autism.
"I really enjoyed having a playground, and I think they will enjoy having that playground as well," Chip said. "And they said they have, which makes me feel even more better knowing that they are enjoying it like I thought they would."
Nikki Porter, Project Hope's Greenwood Clinic coordinator, said the project exceeded her and her staff's expectations and is an important addition to the program.
"I don't think I can put into words what it's meant for us," she said. "... It gives the kids an outlet and something to look forward to and work for. And it fosters play activity and is something the kids can do together."
The program uses the play set regularly, Porter said, and in the short time it's been there, the grass beneath each swing set has been worn away with use.
The project took three days to complete, and 12 volunteers pitched in during the construction. Troop 53 has eight Scouts, and Chip said it meant a lot to him to see his fellow Scouts and friends dedicate so much time to helping him achieve his goal.
Chris Eubanks, Chip's scoutmaster, said he has seen Chip make great strides in Scouts. Watching Chip plan and execute his project, Eubanks said, was a great experience.
"I told him in his scoutmaster's conference that I was very proud to be a part of it," he said. "Even though I wasn't there for a lot of his advancement coming up through the troop, I did get to see a lot of his work. He has been a Scout guide for us at times and recently an assistant patrol leader and then watching him develop his project and get out there. I talked to him some and he was nervous about a project like that, about trying to lead the boys. But he did a very good job out there that day, and I was proud of him."
Greg Ehlers, Chip's father, said he's proud to see his son reach the highest rank in Boy Scouts - an organization that has helped Chip to grow as a person and to experience new things.
"It's made him a little bit more outgoing," he said. "He's not as introverted or shy as he was. And he's had some challenges, along with the other boys. We've hiked on the Appalachian Trail, we've done a lot of stuff that we had the opportunity to do through Scouting."
Chip said, for him, Scouting has been a way to overcome some of his anxiety about social interaction, to learn about himself and the world around him and to build skills. To be able to help children dealing with some of the same struggles he's overcome, and through an organization that's meant so much to him, Chip said, was an amazing experience.
Information from: The Index-Journal, http://www.indexjournal.com
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