Atascadero parents plan park with special-needs kids in mind

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comJune 13, 2013 

A group of mothers and their children, some with special needs, play in the Atascadero backyard of Jenell Allen, right. Her group is working to build an all-inclusive park near the Colony Park Community Center.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

On a recent afternoon, 5-year-old Keagan Sullivan sat in a bright red plastic fire truck and tinkered with the steering wheel as he welcomed his friend, 7-year-old Timmy Reed, to come play with him.

Nearby, moms chatted as they watched a mix of special-needs children and their siblings snack on cool watermelon and play under a shade tree at Jenell and Joshua Allen’s Atascadero home. The mothers’ group, who met at San Gabriel Elementary School and has grown over the years, is working to develop what they call an “all-inclusive park” in town.

The group is in talks with the city of Atascadero to use a vacant plot of land near the Colony Park Community Center. In all, they estimate the volunteer fundraising effort will raise about $150,000, and they’re starting to solicit donations of money and services. Already on board is designer Mark Dariz of Design Solutions, who volunteered his time. They plan to go before the City Council for final approval possibly this summer, organizers said.

Another park for special-needs children, the only other in San Luis Obispo County, is in the works on the Nipomo Mesa through nonprofit group Jack's Helping Hand.

Flimsy swings, fire-pole cutouts, wide open spaces and sand at traditional parks are all things the mothers say pose dangers to kids that lack certain muscle coordination and sensory functions.

While the new park’s design will be unlike others, the group says it’ll welcome everyone, especially what the mothers call “typical” children that may not be exposed to those with special needs.

“There are a lot of special-needs kids, but you don’t see them because they have nowhere to go — they stay home,” said Sarah Sullivan, Keagan’s mom. “The idea (is) that everybody can play together and other kids will want to play with them on a kid level. And not just be like, ‘Hey, there’s that wheelchair kid.’”

The park may have larger, sturdier plastic swings for all ages; wheelchair-adaptable swings for kids who can’t leave oxygen tanks; sensory-processing stations with chime, drum and bell sounds; a spinning toy with a chair back; and a Braille alphabet station. It would also have shallow steps, climbing areas, special flooring, shade for kids with sun conditions and perimeter fencing with only one entry point — all aspects most traditional parks lack.

The fencing is critical for most of the moms, since many of their children have brain conditions that don’t allow them the capacity to understand danger, even after parents remind them. For those families, a day at the park means the constant possibility that their child will dart off toward the road or out of sight.

“For me, it makes it to where it’s impossible (to go to a park) and puts a strain on our mother-daughter relationship. It’s more like monster-mother-daughter,” said Jennifer Raine, mother of 5-year-old Eve, who has autism and cerebral palsy.

She said fencing would make a huge difference, so she wouldn’t be chasing after her daughter every minute and could instead allow her the flexibility to play on her own within a secured site.

Sullivan said she would love a special surface that protects Keagan when he’s mobile. He has cerebral palsy and sensory issues and gets around by wheelchair or by crawling. Part of his condition means he doesn’t feel pain like other kids do.

“If we go to a regular park, he has to crawl in the sand, and it gets hot and … with wood chips there are splinters,” she said. Often, she said his knees end up hurt or bleeding after a day at a traditional park.

For Colleen Reynolds, whose 6-year-old son, Hunter, has Asperger syndrome, sturdier swings would be a dream. “(My son) has balance issues so the swings are hard for him … and he loves to swing. These are things people just don’t understand," she said.

Overall, the moms say they were looking for simplicity when envisioning the park.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to spend time outside at a park and not have to freak out the entire time?’” Sullivan said.

How to donate

Jenell and Joshua Allen plan to donate the swings in honor of Sienna Joy, their baby with Down syndrome who died in March shortly after birth because of a heart complication. Their older daughter, Tiana, 6, also has special conditions, and they hope the delight she and every child get from the park will help Sienna’s memory live on. To donate to the park project, contact Allen at jenellybeans@yahoo.com.

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