When Hannah Berndsen and her sister Morgan went to the playground, Hannah would often have to sit and watch while Morgan could play.
Hannah had cerebral palsy and developmental delays, and spent much of her childhood using a wheelchair. She wanted to play on playgrounds and ride swings, but was often unable to do so safely. So her grandparents helped her parents, Debbie and Michael Berndsen, install an adaptive swing in their backyard. Hannah could swing, blow bubbles and watch Morgan play — but only in their yard.
“It’s not really fair,” Debbie Berndsen said. “Every kid should have the chance to swing.”
Hannah died in January 2012. But a few months later, her father heard Natalie Blakemore and Angie Wuebbels make a presentation to the Breese City Council about establishing an all-inclusive playground at Northside Park in Breese.
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Blakemore founded Unlimited Play, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing inclusive playgrounds throughout the region. Blakemore began with Zachary’s Playground in Missouri, named after her own son, who uses a wheelchair. Since then, they’ve helped groups navigate the permits, permissions, fundraising and designs of inclusive playgrounds throughout the area.
Wuebbels, who is a physical therapist working with special-needs children, was the coordinator of the project to bring an Unlimited Play playground to Breese. For her, it began on paper for a school project, until she heard about Zachary’s Playground and got in touch with Blakemore.
Michael Berndsen caught up with them after the city council meeting and told them they wanted to do anything they could to help. Thus Hannah’s Playground was born, and three years later dozens of volunteers hammered and lifted pieces into place for a community build day on Sunday.
“The progress is amazing,” Debbie Berndsen said, watching a group drill a slide into place as they waited for a crane to arrive to lift a barn-style roof onto the wheelchair-accessible ramp. The playground will have a spongy, flat surface that will allow people in wheelchairs, crutches or walkers to access the equipment, as well as low ramps, adaptive seats in swings, sensory musical toys and other features that will be fun for all people, not just children with disabilities, Berndsen said.
“A lot of people are under the misconception that it’s just a handicapped-accessible playground, and that’s not correct,” Berndsen said. “It’s an all-inclusive playground; it doesn’t exclude anyone.”
It will also give access to adults, she said: a grandfather in a wheelchair will be able to play on the playground with his grandchildren.
The $300,000 price tag was raised with a massive community effort. “The community was unbelievable,” Blakemore said. Children threw birthday parties and their families donated money to the project in lieu of gifts. There was a fundraiser run, Christmas caroling, donations in-kind from construction and cement companies, and of course donations from civic organizations and assistance from the city.
The committee plans to hold another work day in mid-May for landscaping, with a tentative opening day on May 31, Berndsen said.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.