Freeman News

Construction begins on new Bill & Virginia Leffen Center for Autism

August 05, 2014

Armed with gold shovels and teal hardhats, supporters of Freeman Health System and Ozark Center, Freeman’s behavioral health division, overturned mounds of dirt, officially signaling the start of construction.

JOPLIN, Mo. – Armed with gold shovels and teal hardhats, supporters of Freeman Health System and Ozark Center, Freeman’s behavioral health division, overturned mounds of dirt, officially signaling the start of construction for the new Bill & Virginia Leffen Center for Autism. The nearly 20,000-square-foot space, located at 2808 South Picher, will be completed in 12 months. The $4.2 million center will be tailor-made for local youths, designed to deliver autism treatment through the most effective and innovative means possible. 

“Today we have much to celebrate,” said Paula Baker, Freeman President and Chief Executive Officer. “We celebrate this beautiful new building. We celebrate those whose financial contributions made construction possible. We celebrate our staff who commit themselves to making a difference. And we celebrate our students, who make as much of a profound impression upon us as we do upon them.”

During the groundbreaking ceremony, Baker gave special thanks to the individuals and organizations who contributed financially to the project, including Bill & Virginia Leffen, after whom the center is named. The Joplin couple generously donated $3 million to help fund the construction. 

The new space will revolutionize autism treatment for the region, said Kristy Parker, Bill & Virginia Leffen Center for Autism Clinical Director. Young adults can utilize a mock apartment to prepare for cooking, housekeeping and home management on their own. Young children will benefit from mock environments that will allow them to develop a level of comfort with certain scenarios before actually experiencing them, such as visits to a library, theater, doctor’s office and hair salon.

 The center’s preschool wing will feature the same type of moveable walls installed in Joplin High School’s Northpark Mall campus. “This element is especially promising for our young students, who struggle initially to learn in a busy, distracting environment,” said Parker. “It is best to teach these students in one-on-one settings and slowly transition them into small groups. In the new center, we will be able to move walls – not the children – so we can slowly manipulate the classroom at a pace the children are comfortable with.” 

Every design element was selected with students in mind. Natural light will be abundant in each wing. The gymnasium – a first for the center – will double as a safe room. The campus will be equipped with two outdoor playgrounds, accommodating varying age ranges. 

“Never before have we been able to offer so much,” said Parker. “And for that, we are truly grateful.” 

The center’s former facility, then known as Ozark Center for Autism, was destroyed following the May 22, 2011, tornado that struck Joplin. Despite the enormity of the loss, staff resumed treatment for local youths within one week of the storm. The center continued to grow after the storm with the addition of daily living and prevocational skills classes and a program that connects young adults with autism to employment.

Developed in consultation with the Cleveland Clinic Autism Consulting Group, Bill & Virginia Leffen Center for Autism provides intensive therapy vital to unlocking parts of the brain that control functions such as language, emotion, social skills and interest. Since opening in 2007, more than 355 children and young adults received treatment through the center. In 2010, a Special Education Center was established, expanding therapy services to kindergarten through 12th grade students. In 2011, the center established the Four State’s first autism diagnostic team, which features the resources of an entire team of diagnostic professionals.

About Freeman Health System
Locally owned and nationally recognized, Freeman Health System includes Freeman Hospital West, Freeman Hospital East, Freeman Neosho Hospital and Ozark Center – the area’s largest provider of behavioral health services – as well as two urgent care clinics, dozens of physician clinics and a variety of specialty services. A not-for-profit health system, Freeman provides cancer care, heart and vascular care, neurology and neurosurgery, orthopaedics, children’s services, and women’s services and has more than 300 physicians on staff. Additionally, Freeman is the only Children’s Miracle Network Hospital in a 70-mile radius. For more information, visit or or follow Freeman President and Chief Executive Officer Paula Baker at 

About Ozark Center
An integral component of Freeman Health System based in Joplin, Missouri, Ozark Center provides comprehensive behavioral health services to children, adults, and families in an area that includes more than 450,000 residents from Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Ozark Center continually looks for innovative ways to address the mental health needs of the community and promote awareness of mental illness in an effort to eliminate the discrimination associated with it. For more information, visit or call 417.347.7600.