Ypsi-Ann Arbor nonprofit offers activities tailored to young people with special needs

Feed the Need Sensory Zone offers sensory-friendly activities for young people, and may offer "sensory buses" and employment opportunities in the future.
When Tiana Haygood, founder of the nonprofit Feed the Need Sensory Zone, was talking to her husband about picking names for their second son, the couple imagined him as a star athlete, with the crowd chanting the name "Levi! Levi!" But the first time Haygood enrolled her son in a soccer club for kids with autism and other special needs, she realized she might have to adjust her expectations.

"He did not want to kick the ball, just run and spin," Haygood says. "At first I was a little embarrassed, because the other parents were at least watching their kids kick a ball. But then someone said, 'Well, he's happy.' I had to stop myself, because, at the end of the day, everyone just wants their kids to thrive, to be happy and feel like themselves."

That realization started Haygood on a journey of exploring sensory enrichment materials and activities for her son with autism and other children with special needs.

During the early lockdown phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, she made sure Levi had a great support network of friends and extended family, and "all the equipment he needs, like trampolines and things like that."
Feed The Need Sensory Zone founder Tiana Haygood.
But she began talking to other parents at her son's school and realized they didn't necessarily have the same resources. 

"There are these needs not being met, and we've got to do something about it," she says. 

That thought led Haygood to establish Feed the Need as a 501(c)(3) in 2021. The organization is headquartered in Ypsilanti, with an activity center at Unique Care Connect Community Center, 3060 Packard St. Suite B in Ann Arbor.

Ypsilanti resident Crystal Harding's son Maurice, 29, spends time at Feed the Need and the Unique Care Connect Center. She says the facilities offer something special.
Tiana Haygood (left) at Feed The Need Sensory Zone at Unique Care Connect Community Center.
"There isn't anything else out there for special needs adults," she says. "There is a sensory room at the Unique Care Connect Center and that is where Maurice spends most of his time. It is a place for him to be himself, relax, belong and be loved."

At first, Haygood and Feed the Need's early board members only intended the organization to be a resource for advice on what kinds of sensory equipment — from slime to swings to trampolines — and what kind activities children might try. But it grew from there, and Haygood and her board members decided to organize events "that can show people exactly what a community looks like that is more accommodating for children that have sensory needs," she says.

Haygood brings to her work not just personal experience with her son but more than a decade of experience in early childhood education, in roles ranging from paraprofessional in an elementary classroom to lead teacher in a preschool.

Haygood's next big venture is creating a sensory bus, or maybe even a fleet of sensory buses. For instance, one could be a "calming room," where another, bigger bus or trailer could accommodate large motor skill activities like a ball pit or trampolines. Haygood imagines bringing the vehicles to events, like a Detroit ball game, and allowing parents of kids with special needs to give their children a break from the noise and activity.
Unique Care Connect Community Center co-founder and Director Zee Kennedy.
Feed the Need is already experimenting with having members create and package merchandise, starting with T-shirts, currently on sale at the MDen in Ann Arbor. Proceeds from the merchandise support the nonprofit. Haygood says those offerings may expand to include mugs, hats, and other items.

Eventually, Haygood would like to turn that endeavor into a business that would employ young people with special needs and give them work experience and skills. Haygood says one of the current workers is "a young lady in a wheelchair who is nonverbal, but she's one of the hardest workers we have." Members with fewer mobility limitations run the heat press for the shirts, but the young woman also has a role.

"When it's cooled down, she's the one who peels off the plastic and stacks 'em up. She's like a machine," Haygood says. "That's the idea. We want to make it so, no matter what your ability level, there's something for you."

For more information about Feed the Need, visit the nonprofit's website.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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