Tower of Strength

Strong Reach Playground in Bowdon, Ga.

By Emily Tipping

n the summer of 2004, a mother visited a playground with her two young girls. Her 2-year-old spotted a little boy in a special swing at the back of the playground, and asked why he needed to be strapped in.

"He needs special support and can't just play on any type of equipment," said the mother, noting to herself that the adaptive swing was the only piece of accessible equipment in the playground.

"Why does the boy have to play in the back of the playground?" the little girl asked.

"You know what? He shouldn't," the mom replied. "He should be able to play with everyone else."

The little girl responded, "Yes. He needs to be able to reach the monkey bars so he will be strong."

"Would you like to build a playground?" Jennifer Daniel asked her daughter, launching several years of fundraising, research and community effort, which ultimately resulted in an inclusive playground for Bowdon, Ga.

In the counties surrounding Bowdon—including Carroll, Heard, Haralson and Coweta counties in Georgia and Cleburne and Randolph counties in Alabama, nearly 2,000 children ages 5 to 15 have at least one type of disability, according to the U.S. Census of 2000. Those disabilities make it hard for kids to play on traditional playground equipment, and those children are often relegated to special, separate equipment, if there is any accessible equipment at all.

Seeing a boy swinging in the back of their playground, Daniel and her daughters decided that it wasn't enough. Daniel turned to the Internet to read about and research accessible playgrounds, eventually ending up on the Web site for Boundless Playgrounds, a nonprofit organization that helps communities develop playgrounds that provide play for kids of all abilities. Daniel gathered a team of people together to start raising money, following the procedures suggested by Boundless Playgrounds.

"We had a dreaming and design party for the kids, which went over very well," Daniel said. "Then we had a values session for the parents. We got a group of parents together to ask them what they'd like to see, which included things like shade, places to sit and a few other things. Then we worked on the design with some of the pediatric therapists who work at Southern Therapy. They told us which elements would be best for kids with every kind of disability—what would really be accessible for them and what they probably wouldn't use."

Armed with the children's dreams, the parents' wishes and the therapists' advice about what would be truly accessible and how different types of play equipment would develop strength for kids with special needs, Daniel and the Strong Reach Playground team came up with a design and sent out a request for proposals to several manufacturers.

In the meantime, fundraising efforts were paying off. The organization's first fundraiser, a fashion show that involved kids and parents with and without disabilities, raised more than $10,000. "We even got kids from a crisis center involved and they modeled in our show as well," Daniel said. "They were thrilled because they never got to do things like that. One parent of a son with cerebral palsy said, 'That was the first time my child has been on stage when I didn't think people were staring at him.' It really supported what we are trying to do here, which is to create inclusion."

Another fundraiser, a golf tournament, raised more than $25,000. "The kids with special needs helped with the tournament, and a golf instructor for handicapped people came and conducted a clinic on the range, instructing them on how they could overcome some of the obstacles they face due to their disabilities," Daniel said.

The fundraising eventually paid off with $78,000 for a 4,000-square-foot playground including slides, climbers and a game area, with accessible sidewalks and ramps throughout the playground. With 70 percent of the equipment accessible to children with disabilities, the playground creates a feeling of inclusion among kids ages 2 to 12.

"Playgrounds are dreadful if you can't let your child just walk up and play like typical children, and there are a lot of people who do have children with special needs," Daniel said. "This playground is a refreshing site for them. There are ramps and plenty of space, so you don't feel cramped. There's even room for mom to go down the slide with a child."

Strong Reach Playground goes above and beyond the ADA requirements to be more inclusive for children with special needs. The benefits for those kids are enormous, but the playground benefits other children, too. When typical children get to interact with those with special needs, they develop more compassion, tolerance and acceptance, and they learn that interacting with these kids is nothing to fear.

The project set a great example for the community, and Daniel added that it set a good example for their children as well. "You do not have to be the Rotary Club or any other type of club to do something for your community, even if it costs a lot of money," she said. "We're all parents. We have jobs. We have busy lives, and this is something we all made time to work on. People in the community can do something for their community. This whole project has shown me that with faith and diligence, we can do anything."

And there's still more to do, Daniel said. Despite the impressive fundraising efforts, she said the group didn't have enough to cover the $41,000 required for a poured rubber surface. "We put down wood fiber mulch," she said. "It's ADA-accessible, but it's not satisfactory to us."

So the next round of fundraising has begun, and the community is reaching even further to provide a Strong Reach for all area children.


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