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 Allens 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 theyre 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.
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 parks design will be unlike others, the group says itll 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 dont see them because they have nowhere to go they stay home, said Sarah Sullivan, Keagans 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, theres that wheelchair kid.
The park may have larger, sturdier plastic swings for all ages; wheelchair-adaptable swings for kids who cant 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 dont 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 its impossible (to go to a park) and puts a strain on our mother-daughter relationship. Its 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 wouldnt 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 hes mobile. He has cerebral palsy and sensory issues and gets around by wheelchair or by crawling. Part of his condition means he doesnt 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 dont understand," she said.
Overall, the moms say they were looking for simplicity when envisioning the park.
We thought, Wouldnt 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 Siennas memory live on. To donate to the park project, contact Allen at email@example.com.