When Owen Essendrup was 18 months old, he was a typical little boy meeting all the major milestones.

He was saying words like puppy and cat and mom and dad.

But his mother, Anya Essendrup of Cosmos, said that changed shortly after his second birthday when he stopped talking.

Totally stopped talking.

“It was literally overnight,” Anya said. “I put him to bed on a Tuesday and he was talking and he woke up Wednesday and he said nothing.”

Owen is now 3½ years old. He was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder about a year ago.

“Owen is awesome,” said Anya. “He’s not verbal but he’s awesome.”

The same can be said about 4-year-old Brody Hinderks.

Jackie Hinderks of Renville said her son is a happy, smart, energetic little boy with a contagious laugh. He makes lots of sounds – but does not say a word.

“He’s the noisiest, most talkative little boy for not being able to say anything,” said Jackie, who first had concerns about Brody’s development when he was 18 months old. He was diagnosed with autism when he was 2.

Preschool for autistic children

Owen and Brody are part of a group of seven children who currently attend a full-time preschool center in Willmar specifically designed for young children with autism.

Called Nolan’s Place LLC, the center – which is for children 3 to 7 years of age – is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week, all year long.

It opened at the end of June 2018 in the Skylark Center with the goal of mimicking a school but focusing on social and everyday skills rather than academics.

Nolan’s Place is named after its first client, 6-year-old Nolan Graves, a bubbly little boy who “loves to love people” but has difficulty expressing it, said his mother, Sallie Graves.

Sallie said Nolan – like Owen – was developing on schedule and was saying typical, simple words until shortly after his second birthday. That’s when changes started to happen.

“It was like a slow regression of Nolan fading into a world of autism,” said Sallie.

Videos of Nolan as a young toddler document how he “slowly slipped into a fog,” she said.

No place to go

When Nolan was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in October 2017, Sallie frantically began looking for a center that could provide therapy beyond the limited in-home services offered by local schools and county family service departments.

She filled out lengthy applications – a total of about 500 pages – for a dozen autism centers for preschool-aged children. They were all in the metro area and they all had a year-long wait list.

Faced with that limited choice, Sallie said she and her husband, Ron, agreed that she would get an apartment in the Twin Cities and take Nolan to classes during the week. She and Nolan would return home to Prinsburg on the weekends to be with Ron and the couple’s younger son, Max.

That’s when Jill Fellows – a therapist who had been coming to the Graves home twice a month – told Sallie that rather than disrupting the family to get Nolan services in the Twin Cities, the two women should instead open an autism learning center in Willmar.

So – even though they really didn’t know each other very well – Sallie and Jill said they knew there was a need for these services, felt the power of God’s hand in the plan and dove head-first into plans to open an autism learning center.

“It was a huge leap of faith, but it never felt risky. It never felt uncomfortable,” said Jill. “It never felt … ”

“ ... Like we wouldn’t be able to do it. That it wasn’t attainable,” said Sallie, finishing Jill’s sentence.

Almost as soon as the doors of Nolan’s Place were opened, there were names on a waiting list.

Long commute

Melanie and Ryan Nelson of Willmar know all about the challenges of finding services for young children with autism.

Their 5-year-old daughter Harper was 18 months old when they started noticing signs of autism. She had stopped talking and didn’t respond when her daddy called her name.

After receiving an autism diagnosis when Harper was 2, Melanie said she and her husband made a commitment to help their daughter as much as they could by finding a place that provided comprehensive therapy.

That meant attending a center in Eden Prairie – about two hours away from Willmar.

They bought a house midway in Montrose where the family of four lived on weekdays.

For two years, Ryan and the couple’s older son traveled every weekday from Montrose to Willmar for work and school while Melanie and Harper traveled to Eden Prairie for therapy and classes from 9 a.m. to noon, five days a week.

They all returned to Montrose in the evenings for supper and sleeping.

On weekends, they went to their home in Willmar.

“We did a lot of driving,” said Melanie.

That changed after they learned about Nolan’s Place.

The family recently sold their house in Montrose and Harper began attending Nolan’s Place full time in April.

Being “under one roof” has been good for the family and the full days of therapy have been beneficial for Harper, said Melanie.

“It’s been great,” she said. “They’ve really gone above and beyond what we expected.”

Within one week of attending Nolan’s Place, she said, Harper went to the bathroom by herself. “My jaw hit the floor,” said Melanie, who quickly messaged the news to her family.

Although she’s also non-verbal, Harper can now identify which letter makes which sound by pointing and using a computerized device.

“It’s been pretty amazing to see how far she’s come in such a short time,” said Melanie.

Pieces fell into place

As soon as Sallie, a registered nurse, and Jill, an occupational therapist, decided they were going to open Nolan’s Place, they began researching licensing requirements and looking for a location.

A process that can easily take a year or two took just a few months as items on the list quickly fell into place.

The women were told no one had ever successfully completed the required state paperwork on a first attempt. They did.

They were told it could take several months to get an on-site inspection. They had a state inspector show up within two weeks.

The women first explored the idea of opening a center in October 2017. By January of 2018 they had registered the business, by March they had completed the Department of Health paperwork, they had a site inspection in April and they opened the doors in June 2018.

“It was truly, like everything happened so fluidly,” said Sallie. “We say it was totally not in our control.”

“I think it was God’s plan from the very beginning,” said Jill.

“It truly was,” said Sallie. “Everything that has happened has had a higher power involved.”

Happy to be here

When the children arrive at Nolan’s Place, they have a group circle time where they raise their hands and take turns putting the letter of the day or the color of the day onto a board. Each child has an assistant to lead them through the day-long activities that include following two-step directions, strengthening motor skills, crafts and play.

They arrive at 8 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m.

What happens in between is powerful.

“It’s like a lightbulb went off for Owen,” said Anya. “He’s just definitely happier and it’s easier for him to navigate life.”

Owen has learned how to communicate using different tools at Nolan’s Place, which has improved his behavior.

“He just wanted to be understood for so long,” she said.

Owen is also a runner. “He has no fear of anything in life. Nothing. Not water. Not cars. Not people. Nothing. When he decides he’s going, he’s going,” said Anya.

Being at Nolan’s Place, which includes walking to parks and playgrounds, has reduced Owen’s impulse to bolt, she said.

Jackie said Brody loves the routine of Nolan’s Place and he can now communicate without speaking.

“It’s so comforting to have him here,” she said. “Nolan’s Place is fantastic. I tear up just thinking about it.”

She said Owen is “happy to be here” in the morning when she drops him off and is happy when she picks him up at the end of the day.

Future plans

When Nolan’s Place opened, a new child was added each month to reach their capacity of seven.

They currently have a dozen employees who Sallie and Jill call “total blessing.”

Jill does the billing and helps families navigate the complex web of insurance forms, and Sallie serves as a resource to parents and does the day-to-day running of the center.

“We have the opposite strengths, which pairs well,” said Jill.

Sallie said their partnership works because of their “common faith” and desire to do things that “make a difference.”

Confidence in the operation of their program – and the long waiting list with steady referrals – has prompted the women to look for a larger facility, ideally with a fenced outdoor play area, to accommodate 15 children.

Sallie and Jill said seeing the children expand their skills in communication, safety and group activities – and seeing the relief of parents who know their child is getting the services they need – confirms their decision to open Nolan’s Place.

“We have the best families and the best staff,” said Sallie.

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