Disabled kids can join in the fun at new Edwardsville play area

News-DemocratJune 9, 2013 

— Children with and without disabilities now have a place to play together, in a park designed as "Fun For All."

The Edwardsville Junior Service Club recently finished building a "Boundless Playground," a play area designed to allow children with physical and mental disabilities to play alongside other children. At least 80 percent of the playground is accessible for a child using a wheelchair, with activities designed for children with low vision, children with sensory issues or other disabilities.

There are swings with back supports for children who cannot physically sit up on their own. The sand tables and activity panels are elevated so children of all abilities can play together. Every child, including a child in a wheelchair, can reach the highest play deck with ramps and decks designed for them. The surface is cushioned for safety, but solid enough for wheels to roll across it.

The theme, indicated by a sign across the entrance ramp, is "All for fun, fun for all."

The Junior Service Club has generally raised money for other groups like the school district or the Oasis Women's Center, but this time they wanted to do a larger-scale project, according to coordinator Kelly Schlechte.

Schlechte said the closest public playground accessible to children with disabilities was more than two hours away. While there is one in St. Louis, it is attached to an Easter Seals day care center and is not open to the public.

"Some of these kids had never been to a park before," Schlechte said.

For three years, they raised money with grants and fundraiser projects, including the inaugural Once Upon a Town group effort among local businesses. And more than 400 people, including the mayors of both Edwardsville and Glen Carbon, showed up to volunteer on build days.

"We definitely had the community's support," Schlechte said.

They considered several parks in the area, and chose the centrally-located Edwardsville Township Park -- locally known as Airplane Park, due to its antique airplane on a pedestal display near the entrance. The township offered the land inside the park, adjacent to the long-standing Rotary playground.

While the Junior Service Club raised $455,000 for the playground, Schlechte estimates that the in-kind donations of supplies, equipment and labor made it closer to $1 million.

Two weeks ago, the playground officially opened -- and on the first lovely sunny Friday afterward, with children freshly released from school for the summer, the Boundless Playground was full.

"We love it, we are so excited," said Jan Baughman, of Wood River, who took her grandson, 6-year-old Fynn Baughman, of Glen Carbon, to the playground.

"He's been so anxious to see it, his mom and dad came on opening day," Baughman said as Fynn climbed on the bars.

Meanwhile, fans of the original Rotary "castle" playground need not mourn: While the older playground has been torn down, the Rotary is planning to replace it with another brand-new playground.

Originally built nearly 25 years ago, the wooden castlelike playground had deteriorated over time. Project coordinator Rod Vaught with the Edwardsville Rotary said they thought they could simply repair the structure, but time, weather and heavy use had caused too much damage.

So they went back to the drawing board in more ways than one. Vaught said the Rotary members went into the Edwardsville elementary schools and asked the children what they would like to see in a "really cool playground."

"We got almost 1,000 pictures," Vaught said. He called them their "focus groups" and used the children's visions for their design. That meant a multi-faceted theme, to say the least.

"One of the most common things referenced in talking to the kids was a zip-line, and the other was the theme of pirates," Vaught said. "So there will be a pirate ship complex, but also sliding poles like a fire pole in the middle. And because it's Airplane Park, there is also an airplane theme."

The Rotary estimated they would need $200,000, and after six months of fundraising they are at about 85 percent of goal. For the remainder, Vaught said, they will conduct a "Helping Hands" fundraiser this summer.

Instead of buying a brick for donations, donors will get a tile on which they can put a handprint -- of themselves, of children or grandchildren. It will be displayed at the playground as "Helping Hands."

Vaught said they were intentionally quiet about their project up until now because they didn't want to interfere with the Boundless Playground. "It's a magnificent project," he said.

Now, however, they are planning a build date in mid-September and will need volunteers. And by the time they're done, there will be two brand-new playgrounds side-by-side in the field behind the airplane.

Those interested in the new playground project or "Helping Hands" can find out more at www.airplaneparkplayground.org. For more information about the Boundless Playground, go to www.edglenjuniorservice.org/boundless_playground.html.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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