A Place Where the Disabled Can Play, Too

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls September 15, 2016 13:01
Playground fans Linda Houseberg (left), Terri Neher and Sarah Garcia with Ruby and Oliver

Playground fans Linda Houseberg (left), Terri Neher and Sarah Garcia with Ruby and Oliver

Big dreams often are inspired by something small.

About five years ago, Sarah Garcia was watching her special-needs daughter, Ruby, play at a public playground. Ruby suffered a stroke either in utero or shortly after birth and now 7, does not have full use of her right side.

“She was 2 then, and I began to feel that playgrounds are inadequate for kids – and adults – with special needs,” says Garcia. “I was talking to another mom and I said, ‘I feel left out.’ ”

Ruby – a dynamo despite her handicap – had trouble navigating the sand and bark underfoot and couldn’t use the safety rails because they were on her right side.

She thus became the inspiration for Big Dreams Universally Accessible Parks and Playgrounds, a nonprofit group formed by Garcia to construct a playground for both those with special needs and the able-bodied.

It’s part of a nationwide movement to make public play areas multigenerational and universally accessible – enabling children, parents and grandparents of all abilities to share playtime together.

“Our mission is to make this fun for everyone,” says Garcia, who coordinates youth and senior recreation programs for Tuolumne County and also presides over the nonprofit’s board. “It’s not a disabled kids’ park … it’s a park for everyone. There will also be things to challenge physically able kids. We want to have a place where nobody feels left out.”

The Big Dreams playground is planned for a site long occupied by an older playground on the west side of Veterans Memorial Hall in Tuolumne.

While the site has generated some concern from the Tuolumne Park and Recreation District and the Veterans of Foreign Wars post which uses Memorial Hall, fundraising has generated more than $150,000 of the $435,000 needed to complete the playground.

Garcia, 35, says the need for disabled playground access is significant, as 2014 U.S. Census figures confirm: About 13 percent of Tuolumne County residents – more than 7,000 of roughly 55,000 – are disabled. Of those, nearly 1,000 are children, the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office reports.

While most parks meet requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Garcia says, few if any come close to what she envisions for Tuolumne.

“This goes beyond anything required by ADA,” says Garcia, a Tuolumne native who attended Summerville elementary and high schools. “We’re blowing ADA out of the water.

“We want to shoot for the moon and build the park we really want to build – and be an example to other communities.”

She says able-bodied children will benefit from playing alongside those with special needs, and that a totally accessible park will offer families, special-needs or otherwise, a place to spend time together.

The latter hits home for Garcia, as she and her husband, Jason, also have an able-bodied son, 5-year-old Oliver – every bit the firebrand that Ruby is.

Another advocate of the playground’s family appeal was Larry Houseberg, 61, a longtime county planner who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – and died in early August.

In an interview in July, Houseberg recalled taking his two grandsons to the current playground. He couldn’t get near the equipment to watch them play because his wheelchair bogged down in the sand – family members could barely dig it out.

“Most grandparents want to play with their grandchildren,” he pointed out, “and not all are ambulatory.”

Architect's rendering of proposed playground

Architect’s rendering of proposed playground

The new park will have rubber tiles, not sand, as its base, making the entire playground wheelchair accessible.

The rubber surface is part of a grand design: ramps from the ground all the way to the top of a large play structure, swings (not part of the current park), an innovative disc swing which can hold four or five kids at once, all manner of sensory and motor-skill play opportunities, and even cozy spaces for kids to enjoy quiet time.

The fenced area of the site will be enlarged toward Fir Avenue to provide a large picnic, seating and socializing area.

“Everything is very thoroughly thought out, and everything has a specific purpose,” says Garcia, whose group worked with an architect specializing in disabled access.

Big Dreams holds one major fundraiser each year – a “Starry Night Dinner in White” – but relies mostly on community donations, with $20 being the most common.

“To me, that says a lot about our community,” Garcia says. “People are doing what they can and want to help in some way.”

One mother sent in a $14 check after her son emptied his piggy bank to contribute.

“That pulls at your heartstrings,” says Garcia.

Heather Karney is the Big Dreams treasurer and serves on the nonprofit’s five-member board, along with Sarah, Terri Neher – she’s Sarah’s mom – Amber Doescher and Margaret Grolle. Like Garcia, Karney and Doescher each have a child with special needs, and Grolle is a physical therapist.

“We’ve done fundraising and it’s great, but it just doesn’t get you the large amounts you need,” Karney says. “It seems like the best way to get it done is to tap into the grant world.”

So Big Dreams, an all-volunteer effort to date, is considering hiring a grant writer. Garcia admits being taken aback by costs. “I didn’t know how expensive the park was going to be,” she says. “Otherwise, they would be everywhere.”

As it is, the nearest Big Dreams-style parks are in urban areas – Folsom, Roseville and Palo Alto – at least 90 miles distant. A Modesto playground is in the planning stages.

“The concept is a good thing,” Garcia says, “and it’s growing.”

The group reports $90,000 in cash donations, about $65,000 in labor and material donations, and $14,000 spent so far for a design architect. The site was free, as Memorial Hall is owned by the county. Garcia says Deputy County Administrator Maureen Frank first offered the site in 2013, and the project and site have been endorsed by the county’s Historic Preservation Review Commission, County Administrator Craig Pedro and – by unanimous vote – the county board of supervisors.

Donnie Wright, chairman of the Tuolumne Park and Recreation District, which maintains the Memorial Hall property under county contract, has “yes and no” feelings about the combination of project and site.

“I know we need a playground for kids,” says Wright, but he wonders if a more central site could be found. “I’m just not sure this is the best location.”

Aaron Rasmussen, a U.S. Army Iraq war veteran, is commander of the VFW Keith Dale Wann Post 4748 at Memorial Hall. He maintains that veterans legally have first and last say regarding use of the Memorial Hall property, and he feels the county should have consulted the veterans before dedicating the site to the playground project.

The post plans to build a 9/11-Iraq-Afghanistan memorial and, according to Rasmussen, originally selected the playground spot as the best site. Learning of the playground plan, the vets switched to a site on the hall’s east side.

Garcia says her group was never made aware of property concerns and reviewed various sites, but settled on the current location in part “because it’s a park already badly in need of repair and replacement.”

Maureen Frank says she knows of no opposition to the project; public hearings turned up only support, she adds. The partnership between the county and nonprofit was approved “because the Board of Supervisors felt there was a big need,” and the project will go forward.

“What do you do when you have three children, one of whom is disabled?” she says. “Do you take your two kids to a regular playground and leave the other one home? Or grandparents who are babysitting but have mobility problems – they’re simply left out.

“It’s an incredible effort by this committee, and what an asset this will be for the community.”

Meanwhile, the playground project moves forward, one donation at a time.

“If we had the money,” says Garcia, “we could start tomorrow.”

Karney is hopeful that day is on the horizon.

“We will … we will,” she says. “We’ll get there.”

Learn more online at bigdreamsplaygrounds.com. Tax-deductible donations may be made to Big Dreams, P.O. Box 1041, Soulsbyville, 95372.

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls September 15, 2016 13:01
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