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Viera drives effort to bring 'sensory friendly' park to New Tampa

NEW TAMPA — Tampa City Council member Luis Viera vividly recalls growing up with a brother with developmental disabilities and autism.

As a child, his family left its Catholic church in Tampa and joined a Baptist church in Brandon because it offered a special education ministry for his older brother Juan. They needed a place that made them feel that they matter.

"Having an organization or local government really means the world," Viera said. "My brother is still involved with that church. You go where the accommodation is."

Inspired by his personal story with autism and buoyed by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's "Autism Friendly Tampa" initiative, Viera is pushing for the creation of a sensory friendly park in the New Tampa area.

With $90,000 in funding approved in the latest city budget, the park is in the design and development phase. Viera expects completion in two years for the park, which will be located behind the BJ's Wholesale Club on Commerce Palms Drive in Tampa Palms.

The location puts in a sort of geographic center for the north Tampa area, just a short drive for those south of the location in communities like Forest Hills and for families north in communities such as Hunter's Green.

In announcing his autism initiative earlier this year, Buckhorn estimated that one in 68 people is somehow affected by autism. Buckhorn said he has come to recognize that for those families, what would otherwise be a simple trip to the pool can be complicated. Finding a summer program can be virtually impossible.

City Hall has pledged to work with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida to give residents with autism the same experience that the rest of the city has. Buckhorn described it as "more fun, more friends and more acceptance."

The center estimates that as many 40,000 families in Hillsborough County are impacted by autism.

The prospects excite Viera, who said the park will be as inspiring as it is functional for the many families dealing with autism in the area.

"It's one of the things I've been very passionate about," Viera said. "It's something I've wanted to support and be supportive of and build up as much as I can.

"You don't have to be in north Tampa or New Tampa to enjoy the park. If you're living in east Tampa, West Tampa. If someone cares and is being empathetic and recognizes your plight, it means a lot to you."

Contact Ernest Hooper at