Building Community

Usually, community recreation and park needs are easy to identify. It's meeting the need and creating reality based on a dream that's the hard part.

Whether it's lack of funds, land or manpower, if one thing is lacking it can kill a project. In the case of Janesville, Wis., and Jackson Township, N.J., the hurdle over the barriers was community involvement. Whether it was a community build by definition, or simply canvassing the community for help, both got the job done in spectacular fashion.

Two Up, Two Down

In Janesville, Wis., its first community built playground, completed in 1993, was such a big success the city did it again more recently.

"Many communities give community-build a once-and-out," says Janesville's city park director, Tom Presny.

"In order for it to be successful you have to have a good understanding of the process before you get into it. It requires a considerable amount of time. I tried to keep a lot of the work to evenings and late afternoons so that it wouldn't eat into precious operations time.

"Also, I didn't get too sucked into the details of the project, but delegated. There are a host of coordinators for such things as volunteer signup, food, first aid, public relations, tools, donations, and so forth. Keeping people to task and letting the community feel the ownership is the critical component for success."

Presny adds that there are organizations that provide coordination, and the playground companies are also helpful in providing direction.

At Janesville's first community build in Camden Park, the build would extend beyond the playground and include surrounding infrastructure.

Camden's focus was to be 100-percent handicap accessible, which brought up questions about parking, restroom needs and pavilions and other structures with accessible features. A walkway that could accommodate wheelchairs was also missing.

"The ingredient for success is to spark a flame in some element of the project, realize the talent available and expose that talent more completely commits them to a community build larger than the playground itself," says Presny.

"It isn't a jurisdiction or agency that can make this successful, but it's the community itself and the various businesses in town that can help. If you have a family with a disabled child pleading with them that their time and talent is critical to the success of this project, it's hard to turn down. And, if you can get them vying in support of each other through additional references it becomes a type of community involvement among themselves."

In order to get the most accessible playground possible, Presny says the committee was introduced to and presentations were given by groups like Easter Seals, March of Dimes, Ronald McDonald House, the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped, and disabled children and their families.

"One of the first things the committee got to understand was the requirements, but we set those aside and to see how we could rise above the challenge and come up with the most appealing and satisfying experience for the disabled," says Presny.

"Even with the regulations, understand what these children want and what they lack -- an exciting, energetic experience -- so let's create something that goes to the limits to create that. We need to make sure we follow all the codes and regulations, but when you have a blind child or a disabled child in front of you, and the parents are telling you their challenges it provides further impetus."

Meeting Special Needs

In Jackson Township, the charge was to not only create a fully-accessible playground, but to create one only for special-needs kids. Furthermore, this playground would strive to accommodate all types of special needs.

"Years ago we had a special needs park. It was a beautiful facility. However, it was in isolated area without security, and it got demolished. There was no able park nearby, and kids didn't use the equipment properly. Over time the kids destroyed the equipment," explains Vincent Rubio, who was on the township's special needs committee, and has been working with special needs children for years.

"Nothing can be crueler than a child sometimes, and you bring a special-needs child into a park and the other kids will tease, taunt or make fun of them in some way, hurting them and their parents. You rarely see the special-needs children use the playgrounds. If they see a group of people in a park, they'll avoid going in. Many times people come in, see seven or eight kids playing, and you watch them get back in the car and leave."

Once the need was established, the ball began to roll. The city provided land near the township's justice complex in an already-established park.

The first step was to name the new park, and provide more publicity through the naming process. A flyer was sent through the elementary schools announcing the naming contest. The winner would receive a $100 savings bond, and 1,000 schoolchildren entered. The winning name was Field of Dreams, which would ultimately be airbrushed with clouds and the name by a local sign company.

Though this wasn't a community build, per se, it was very much dependent on community involvement, input and donations.

The public works department made the fence surrounding the playground and pickets were sold in six-foot sections, with 12 pickets in each section. Each section was priced for sponsorship at $120 and the people's each organization's name was routed into the pickets by someone local with a disability that has a woodworking shop.

"Everything is designed to look like regular playground equipment and matches the other playgrounds. One thing that I found that was important to put in the playground was a sandbox, but a child in a wheelchair can't use a sandbox, so we bought an elevated sandbox," says Rubio.

"We didn't go crazy, because we didn't want to be ostentatious. We figured we'd start off low-key, and by reaching out to the public, the public would realize that it came from the community instead of tax dollars. If we overdid it, we risked a public reaction, which is what we didn't want. We'd rather have the public say, 'Why didn't they do more?'"

Rubio says they plan to add at least one piece per year, with each piece being at least partially donated, with the remainder paid for by additional fundraising, such as engraved bricks.

Bryan BuchkoComment