After months of being rejected by day care centers and struggling to move up on waiting lists to support her 3-year-old son, Sincere, who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, Kiarra Keith felt hopeless. Then she found the We PLAY center at TrainingGrounds, a nonprofit organization focused on creating positive parent-child relationships. 

TrainingGrounds Inc., was established in 2017 by Melanie Richardson and Christine Neely. The two worked together on a community literacy program and recognized that parents wanted more education around child development. They created TrainingGrounds to address this need, focusing on the years of birth to age 5. 

“There’s a lot of families that need that added support, not just connecting them, but really we try to walk alongside them through their journey,” said Richardson of co-founding TrainingGrounds.

TrainingGrounds provides workshops for parents, professional development training for early childhood educators and learning experiences for children. The organization’s We PLAY center creates opportunities for parent-child bonding and brain building through creative play. 

Kiarra Keith, 32, joined TrainingGrounds in search of supportive services for her 3-year-old autistic son. Credit: Nigell Moses/Verite News

“So anyone who’s serving families birth to 5 can refer their families to us. It’s not like you have to have a certain income or a certain background, or live in a certain neighborhood,” Richardson said. 

TrainingGrounds parent-child bonding programs include the “Hug Your Baby” program for mothers in their third trimester or with an infant under 4 months old and sessions on infant massage. The organization’s “Every Step Together” program supports parents with children who have autism or are on the autism spectrum. Parents who are feeling stressed or isolated, can have a private 45-minute session with a parent educator. 

All services are free at TrainingGrounds. The organization is supported through grants, donations and funders including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Greater New Orleans Foundation, United Way of Southeast Louisiana, Baptist Community Ministries and Metropolitan Human Service District. 

“I think the part of the reason we’re a trusted resource is we are parents’ biggest fans,” said Sharon GancarzDavies, the director of the We PLAY center. “We’re going to listen and help parents make their own decisions.”

Andre Herrera, left, with his daughter Aaliyah Herrera and Nondi Lee with her daughter Lumi Lee, play outside TrainingGrounds’ We PLAY center. Credit: Sharon M. GancarzDavies

TrainingGrounds has served 1,300 adults and children since it opened in 2017, Richardson said. Currently, the organization is supporting more than 600 families. This year alone they gained 300 new members, she said. TrainingGrounds plans to open a second location in New Orleans East in September or October of this year.

“As parents, we provide [a] very planful space in reflective supervision for our staff to do their own reflection and make those connections, thinking about what they want to be learning and how to apply it,” GancarzDavies said.

Kiarra Keith knows the impact of TrainingGrounds.

The moment she and Sincere stepped into the center last fall, they were embraced with welcoming arms and provided the resources they needed, she said. Keith, 32, was able to get her son an autistic diagnosis within 30 days through the Every Step Together program. 

Keith said she has grown as a mother and has a better support system for her son. Her goal now is for Sincere to be kindergarten ready.

“So We PLAY just came in, just a resource that we can go from stay-at-home mom to people who understand and can connect me to resources,” Keith said. “It definitely gave me a release as far as just emotionally what I go through … being able to have a resource to talk with other parents.” 

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New Orleans native Nigell Moses graduated summa cum laude from Xavier University of Louisiana with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication. She is a published contributing writer, with stories in The...