On Tuesday, the Rams held their third annual playground build. The entire organization with the exception of the receptionist spent the day paying it forward and giving back to the community in a very uplifting way.

In 2009, I was extremely fortunate to be a part of the first annual Rams playground build that took place in East St. Louis at a park that was in much need of a major facelift. At the end of the day, when walking away from the project and knowing you helped in the total transformation of an area that many will now enjoy, I forgot how totally exhausted I was. Your heart is full of gratification knowing that a community will call that their park and enjoy it each and every day. The 2010 project was at the St. Louis Public School District at Monroe eMints Academy.

On Tuesday, coaches, front-office executives, marketing and sales, sponsorship, media relations, ticketing and the personnel department caravanned to the 2011 location, Giant Steps of St. Louis. There is a process one must go through in order to be awarded the playground build. Schools in both Missouri and Illinois applied for the chance to be awarded this special philanthropic project.

Giant Steps was nominated by Patricia Kopetz, Ed.D., the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Education of Children with Disabilities at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

“I consider Giant Steps a partner in championing best educational practices for children with autism,” Dr. Kopetz said. “The playground will enhance an already valuable program. I’m delighted that the Rams chose Giant Steps!”

Moving into their new location in Maplewood, Giant Steps was established by a group of parents in 1994, so that all St. Louis-area children could have access to a comprehensive, coordinated system of autism intervention and education under the same roof. The former Concordia Lutheran School has plenty of space for Giant Steps’ growing program, and they receive their inspiration and model of success from Giant Steps of Montreal, a center-based program that had pioneered a highly effective, whole-child approach to treating autism.

As I pulled around the corner to my final destination with Giant Steps just in front of me, I parked curbside at the Post Office bearing a sign that read 15-minute parking only. Of course, I ignored that and headed across the street to witness the Rams’ organization at work.

I first located Ted Crews, the Rams’ senior director of media relations and was given a tour of the school by Molly Higgins (a Rams vice president), which was quite nice. Inside I found Rams staff giving the walls a fresh coat of paint and on many of the walls were hand-painted murals of giant flowers, which looked very nice. Outside the main entrance on both sides of the walkway, a major facelift with new plants and bark which surrounded several trees that gave much needed shade and stood among a giant flagpole.

On the far side of the school is where the new playground was being constructed. To see it is to appreciate it. The organization worked like a fine-tuned machine. Everyone involved had responsibilities, group leaders and project managers were in charge of indoor renovation, grounds rejuvenation and playground build. The playground had individual play areas, a large slide (semi-circular) and a fitness structure that was attached. All items are safe and tailored to children with special needs. As mentioned in the Rams’ press release, they partnered with NuToys and leisure products.

I spoke with Nora Kelleher, Giant Steps director of development. She told me, “The mission of Giant Steps of St. Louis is to empower children with autism spectrum disorders to participate fully in all aspects of life, which includes home living, community and education.”

I also spoke with Kim Favignano, Giant Steps program manager, who was all smiles, overwhelmed and in borderline tears over the project that was unfolding right before her eyes.

“We’re excited to be able to offer this assistance to Giant Steps,” Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo said in a recent news release. “We look forward to not only building these kids a playground, but also preparing the inside of the school so it’s ready for the students the first time they walk into the building this fall.”

The program opened in September 1994, with 12 students and 12 staff members. A six-week summer program, Camp Giant Steps, was added in 2005. Today, Giant Steps serves 50-60 students and campers each year at its facility in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights.

Giant Steps’ approach starts with the respect of the student. They understand the challenges of living with autism: anxiety, sensory discomfort, and the frustration of struggling to communicate or master the skills of every-day living. When students join the program they learn that their sensory needs will be honored. They learn that their fears and anxieties will be addressed. They learn that there is help when finding the means to express themselves and take the time to understand.

Generally, the Rams’ players would be in attendance lending a helping hand along with a lot of muscle in the pounding 90-degree heat. But with the lockout in effect, and despite it being a charitable event, there was not a player in sight.