After a few words from officials involved in the project, the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch dedicated a new playground at its London Lodge for autistic boys in the most fitting way possible: by letting kids play on it.
The dozen or so youngsters — about half of them residents of the lodge receiving treatment at YBGR — swinging on swings, spinning in circles and climbing all over the seven-piece playground on Tuesday represented the culmination of more than a year's worth of work that involved days and days of planning, tens of thousands of dollars in donations from across Montana, and dozens of hours of building and installation.
"We are so appreciative of the many, many partners in this," said Glenn McFarlane, YBGR CEO.
"Because that's what it is, a partnership. It's great for the kids to see people showing an interest in them, showing love for them, because they don't always get that. It's healing for those kids to see they're valued and that they're important."
The ranch is a local nonprofit that provides mental health treatment, support and resources to hundreds of emotionally disturbed youth and their families statewide.
Several dozen staff members, supporters and others gathered on Tuesday at the ranch's main campus, 1732 S. 72nd St. W., to dedicate the playground and open it up to the ranch's youth.
Dr. Stephen Mandler, YBGR's medical director, began advocating for the playground about a year ago. The ranch's London Lodge houses about 10 high-functioning boys with autism and the new playground sits in a large, grassy yard behind it.
Mandler said the playground can help teach and develop valuable social and communication skills. Other youth at the ranch also may use the playground.
Studies have shown that playing can aid in the development of social skills and the new playground gives the ranch another tool in working with the youth it serves, Mandler said.
"Things like twisting, spinning, jumping, climbing ... you can't function if you don't watch what others are doing," he said. "This special playground equipment strengthens those features."
The playground sits on a 3,900-square-foot yard and includes a merry-go-round, arch and tire swings, a balance beam, monkey bars and a wave slide.
"We're excited about this program and the things that are happening in the lives of these kids," McFarlane said.
The YBGR Foundation, with the help of numerous donors, raised about $32,000 for the playground.
"Installation of something like this is not easy, and it is not cheap," said Kurt Alme, foundation president.
Construction on the playground was completed with the help of CTA Architects Engineers, which partnered with YBGR to build and install the equipment.
Nineteen employees from CTA put in a combined 63.25 hours working on the playground.
"It's extremely rewarding," said Jim Beal, a principal with CTA. "When you invest your time into giving back and seeing the smiles on the kids' faces, you know it's worth it."
The boys living in London Lodge are ages 10 to 15 and tend to be on the higher-functioning end of the autism scale.
McFarlane described the playground as "a wonderful gift" to the youth at the ranch as well as to a staff "devoted to giving their lives to give kids opportunities."