Hope Springs Eternal
Hope Park in Frisco, Texas
By Rick Dandes
What makes Hope Park in Frisco, Texas, so unusual in concept is that it was custom-built specifically for kids with special needs, with the intent of helping them build self-confidence, make friends and play as equals. But Hope—a highly appropriate name for this park—was also constructed in a way that allows children who don't have special needs to enjoy the play equipment as well, so that siblings and friends of all abilities can play together.
The park opened in May 2013, but it took three years to go from idea to the actual build-out and final completion. And now, Founder and Board of Directors President Jenni Jensen can finally say, "It's a total dream come true. It makes me so happy that these kids have this playground to play on."
Jensen was compelled to build Hope Park after her daughter Nora, 8, who has Down's syndrome, broke a leg and was in a full leg cast and wheelchair for six weeks. "She was about 4 at the time," Jensen said. "We tried to go to a park one day, and I got to experience what it is like for children who are in wheelchairs—trying to go to a park and wheel her through wood chips, and trying to get her into swings I couldn't get her into," she said. "Nora couldn't get on the swing because of her cast. She was too fragile and frail to sit on a big kid's swing. And she was also really sad that she couldn't play with her siblings at the park."
Jensen discovered a wealth of resources and other citizens who were ready and willing to help her dream become a reality. A core group of seven involved moms (some had special needs kids, others didn't) began to work together on the project, but it took six months for a real nine-person board of directors to be formed.
"I did research about Frisco and learned we didn't have any parks that could accommodate children with special needs," Jensen said. Over the next few weeks and months, she talked with town officials, and one of them offered her a place to build it.
Jensen is originally from Port Washington, Wis., and knew that they had a fully accessible kids' park, so she looked up the designer, Leather and Associates, of Ithaca, N.Y. "I called them and asked what it would take to build a park like the one in Wisconsin," Jensen said. Because they received some government funding, the group did an RFP and interviewed three different design companies. Leathers won out because of the different kinds of parks they build. "All along I thought of this as becoming my custom dream park," Jensen said. "And I knew Leathers could help us achieve my dream."
It was mostly private money that was raised to fund the project, added Rene Sinclair, another woman on the board of directors, and the construction coordinator. "We did get a grant of $200,000 from the community development corporation. The city got that, and they used it for the park. The rest was private money. The total cost was just shy of $1 million. We had figured about $900,000. The $1 million does not even take into account the land."
Actual construction took only a few days. This turned into a true communal activity. "We gathered 3,500 volunteers and built it," Sinclair said. "That's amazing in itself that we could get so many people to help. We were never short-handed. It made this community pull together and that was so important to me. I feel so privileged to have all those people help. They made the dream come true. It was a pretty incredible feeling."
Part of the installation included a rubber safety surface from DuraPlay Inc., which is an excellent choice for accessibility. The playground has ramps so that all the equipment is accessible. The ramps also include activities so that the kids who have wheelchairs and walkers can participate on their way up. Play elements at the top mean they don't just have to sit there once they've reached the platform.
Special swings with harnesses were installed so that children who can't support themselves can get on and swing and have fun just like other kids. "We have a special merry-go-round with seats that have support for kids who have trouble sitting up," Jensen said. "This was a big hit with the kids. Slides made of metal were built so that kids with cochlear implants in their ears can slide on the slide. They can't go on slides that are plastic because there are elements of those slides that interrupt the settings of their hearing aids. We put in a hop scotch board so that kids could practice stability with one or two feet hopping. My daughter is very fragile and has to go to physical therapy twice a week, so as we built this park I thought about what kids like her could or could not do."
The hope was that children of all abilities could play in a safe, yet rewarding, environment. "It is today operating as I dreamed it could be, and more," Jensen said. "I take my daughter there and I am happy that when she falls it's not on wood chips or grass or concrete. My daughter has agility problems, but when I take her there I feel comfortable for her safety. And I've met so many people with stories about their children and how this park has affected their lives. My dream was to help all these people and I've done it. So it's a dream come true and such a big thing in my life."