“She’s afraid of climbing monkey bars, afraid of swings that move too fast. The basic things in a regular playground, she’s afraid of falling off,” Audrey said.
So, when Mayor George Brown asked Gowan to join a Special Needs Playground Project Committee several weeks ago, she was grateful.
“I thought I could be a help with my input,” Gowan said.
The committee is considering a lofty goal — constructing an all-inclusive playground at Kirby Park at a possible estimated cost of $400,000, and also outfitting the city’s 17 other parks with some handicap-accessible playground equipment.
It’s a huge leap from the initial $30,000 goal Brown announced just six weeks ago, which would pay for a few pieces of equipment such as swings and a merry-go-round that can accommodate wheelchairs.
“It’s definitely a work in progress, but it’s moving along pretty quickly,” Brown said.
The Rev. Craig Gommer and his wife Cathy are thrilled to sit on the committee, as well.
Their daughter, Kaitlin, 28, is confined to a wheelchair and has numerous medical issues.
“She can’t do anything for herself. She can’t speak,” Craig Gommer said.
The family enjoys vacationing in Ocean City, Maryland, but the Gommers are disheartened that many restaurants there don’t have proper wheelchair access, and in some that do, there’s no place to position Kaitlin’s wheelchair so that it isn’t an obstacle to waitstaff.
Contrasting their Ocean City experiences with a trip to Disney World could be akin to Wilkes-Barre’s current park situation versus what can exist in the future.
“We went to Disney World with her in 2018. One of the great things, which also surprised me, was the number of rides there that our daughter could ride in her wheelchair,” the pastor said. “I shared that at our first meeting. I said, ‘If Disney can do something like that, there’s no reason we can’t build an accessible playground.’”
An all-inclusive park
Carol Mirin, whose 6-year-old great-nephew, Chase Cunningham, has cerebral palsy, said that when Brown met with her and a few others about the committee, they all thought an all-inclusive park would be a good thing for the community.
“For me, the park is about everybody being included, teaching other children that everybody’s different, and that’s OK. To take him to a playground where he can be with other kids is going to be an amazing feeling, to see the look on his face,” Mirin said.
Brown said all of the committee members work with or have someone close to them who has special needs.
“That’s why I picked them,” the mayor said.
Brown said he wanted to start the project with Kirby Park because of its size and popularity.
“We want to pave the sidewalks so people with disabilities can use handicap-accessible pathways to the pavilion and then to the play area,” Brown said. “And if I had enough money, I’d like to put in a changing station — a structure they could go inside with a changing table.”
Committee members considered that a great idea when Brown presented it at a biweekly meeting Thursday.
Brown said the city’s Community Development Block Grant budget has $100,000 set aside for handicap-accessible infrastructure work at city parks, and the city has advertised a request for proposals from engineers. The CDBG budget is set for a final vote before the city council this coming Thursday and, if approved, will go to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ultimate approval.
Committee member Don Armstrong informed his colleagues he’s been in conversations with Michael Tukeva, who, as head of the Pocono Alliance, shepherded an all-inclusive park project near Tannersville in Pocono Twp., Monroe County.
That half-million dollar, 4,400-square-foot playground project began in 2010 and culminated with the grand opening of the Crossing Abilities Playground in August 2014.
Tukeva has provided advice on a similar project in Williamsport, where constructing a 9,400-square-foot all-inclusive park is estimated to cost around $400,000.
Committee members were impressed with the Williamsport project design and liked the idea of a similar project at Kirby Park.
Brown said all donations to the playground project will be tax deductible because funding will go into a dedicated account of the nonprofit Luzerne Foundation.
Much of the discussion at Thursday’s committee meeting centered on fundraising strategy, something in which Armstrong said Tukeva and Charles Barber, of the Luzerne Foundation, have great expertise.
Dignity and respect
Tukeva, who became president and CEO of Pocono Mountains United Way after Pocono Alliance merged with that organization, said Friday he didn’t think fundraising for the Wilkes-Barre project would be “a heavy lift … as long as the early elements are done well.”
Tukeva said the Tannersville project, for him and those he worked with, was “a learning experience” that required “a deep dive into understanding the community the playground would serve,” approaching everyone with dignity and respect, and making sure “every aspect of the project included listening, humility and inclusion.”
Children were asked to provide their own drafts of what they thought a playground should include, which ranged from the the impractical, like Ferris wheels, to the more relevant, like wheelchair swings.
“The playground could not be something separate and distinct. There had to be the belief that it was for all children, or catering to children with a disability,” Tukeva said, noting that it had to be “inclusive, not just accessible.”
Inclusive playground design should provide opportunities for opportunities for physical, cognitive, communicative, social/emotional and sensory development, Tukeva said.
“Inclusive play has the ability to change the way future generations interact with one another,” he said.
Tukeva said nearly all of the funding for the $500,000 Tannersville project was in place in about seven months.
“It’s an easy sell,” he said, “because once people get a taste for this, how can you turn your back on it?”