CLEARWATER — Vicki Wilhelmi has long struggled with finding the right tools and toys that help her with her 14-year-old son, Kurt, who has Asperger's syndrome and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
When a teacher at her school noticed a flier for Kids Toolbox, a new store in Clearwater that stocks materials for kids with autism, attention-deficit disorder and other special needs, she checked it out.
"My reaction was emotional," said Wilhelmi, who lives in Clearwater and also teaches kindergarten. "The setting they created — the lighting in the store is subdued and that really helps; they had a sensory play area. … I just poured my heart out to (owner Pam LeGath). It is like you can go in and you are welcome, not patronized. It's a business, but at the same time it's a caring community."
Kids Toolbox is a kids store with a unique mission. Instead of Play-Doh, it sells "therapy putty" — brightly colored pots of putty that progress from super soft to extra firm to meet a wide range of strengthening needs.
The store has an array of puzzles that do double duty as therapy tools and specially engineered scissors, spoons, child chairs and pencils that make life easier for kids with special needs or developmental issues.
The store stocks "tools" for children and caregivers who face challenges posed by autism, ADHD, developmental delays, sensory disorders and other issues that make things like writing your name, learning to sound out words or eating with a spoon difficult.
A game like Tricky Fish may look like a toy, but it's also a tool to help a child develop gross motor skills, eye muscles and attention span.
You can find special tools like dual control scissors that make it easier for an adult to help a child with weak fine motor skills or poor vision.
And the store stocks seamless socks for kids with sensory issues that make normal socks torture on their toes.
Though the store is open now, owners Mike and Pam LeGath are hosting a grand opening celebration from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the store, 1550 McMullen-Booth Road, Suite F5. There will be promotions and prizes, including a free stay at the TradeWinds, one of the few area hotels with autism-friendly accommodations such as special menus, safety kits for the room and sensory activities.
The store owners ask that you come to the grand opening with a nonperishable food item, which will be donated to the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center in Safety Harbor.
"We want to make our store unique, not just a typical retail store," Mike LeGath said. "We want this to be a community resource center where all feel welcome and can share ideas and information. No longer will people need to blindly order these products online. They will have somewhere to try before they buy."
LeGath's family had its own frustrations, buying items like weighted blankets off the Internet for a member of his family, then having to send returns back and forth through the mail.
"It finally dawned on us that there's a lot of people going through this, so we contacted professionals, therapists and teachers," he said. He found that those individuals also liked the idea of being able to see and handle therapy products themselves.
"We thought if we had a store not only for the parents, but for teachers, doctors, therapists, then the pros can make a better recommendation to parents, and the parents get a better buying experience … and the kids invariably (have) a preference," LeGath said.
The store has a sensory-safe area for kids to play with puzzles and busy boards while parents shop. LeGath plans to host parents, teachers, therapists and children for support groups and seminars. For example, each Sunday at 1 p.m. the store will have a 45-minute children's class such as yoga or music for $10 per class.
Once a month on a Monday evening, there will be lectures for adults. On April 30, an expert will talk about ADHD and the resources available. Call the store at (727) 799-ADHD (2343) to sign up.
Wilhelmi has already signed up for three seminars. In addition to books she bought to help her with her son, she's picked up items to help some of her kindergarten students, such as "chewers" she can put on the end of a pencil for kids with oral motor issues.
While she has long been a catalogue shopper, Wilhelmi said it makes a huge difference to touch and feel the products in person.
She's also discovered tools she didn't know existed.
"They have writing paper where the lines are raised so the kids can feel where they need to stop, and they have a slanted writing board for children who can't lean forward so they can write on their desk," Wilhelmi said. "I so wish I had that when Kurt was younger. You need to be able to touch and feel this to see what works."