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Plan for special-needs park in Atascadero moves closer to reality

Jenell Allen, left, and Sarah Sullivan, founders of Parents for Joy, at the site of their future special needs playground at Colony Park in Atascadero.
Jenell Allen, left, and Sarah Sullivan, founders of Parents for Joy, at the site of their future special needs playground at Colony Park in Atascadero. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A year ago, a group of local moms had a vision to build a special-needs playground in Atascadero but few plans in place. They knew they wanted to create a safe, accessible place for play — and they knew they would have to work hard to get there.

Since then, the group has come a long way.

Now under the official umbrella of their new nonprofit organization, Parents for Joy, the families hope to break ground on their $500,000 project next year.

They’ve secured city land to use behind the Colony Park Community Center off Traffic Way, gained approval from the city Planning Commission and formed a fundraising partnership with the local Kiwanis group. Fundraising is ongoing.

“It’s exciting to see all the enthusiasm — all those people believing in (us),” group co-founder Jenell Allen said.

Allen founded Parents for Joy with her friend Sarah Sullivan.

The organization has a core group whose kids all have special needs, with about 15 members meeting monthly and about 50 members overall.

Sullivan is mom to Keagan, a fun-loving 7-year-old with cerebral palsy and sensory issues who gets around by wheelchair and by crawling. Allen is mom to bright-eyed Tiana, 7, who has Down syndrome and autism. The group is named after Allen’s fifth child, Sienna Joy, who died last spring shortly after birth because of a heart complication.

“That was special about the name because it was after her,” Allen said of the Parents for Joy title. “And for the daughter that is here, and for all our kids, the motivation is really to have something special for them.”

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

Playgrounds for children with special needs are designed for both fun and safety. Traditional playgrounds’ flimsy swings, fire-pole cutouts and high platforms are all things the mothers say pose dangers to kids who lack certain muscle coordination and sensory functions.

At the new park, access wouldn’t be a problem.

A rock-and-raft boat would offer six seats and a spot for a wheelchair to lock in place so riders can sway back and forth. Sound and sensory boards would provide engaging play. And an arch swing with a large flat disc will help park-goers with limited mobility or other concerns to be able to lie down and swing.

“Swings are a huge thing for any kid,” Allen said. “But kids with autism and other conditions, it’s a really big thing because of the rocking motion they like.”

In all, the park with have 12 specialized swings plus the arch swing.

It also will have perimeter fencing with one entrance and rubber flooring.

“Even elderly people in walkers could come in,” Sullivan said. “We wanted it to be made for everyone.”

The park will have a magic forest theme with main tree house feature that has double-wide ramps and accessible bridges leading to multiple play areas.

The group was first pursuing an underwater theme with boats but wanted to keep the features local to Atascadero’s wooded landscape, Sullivan said.

With about $40,000 raised so far, the group is far from its fundraising goals.

Members originally priced the park at $150,000, but costs soared when accounting for the state’s construction requirements.

The total isn’t insurmountable, Allen says, because the more people are learning about their project, the more offers of help they are getting.

Contractors are volunteering to do big jobs — such as engineering and concrete work — for free. And GameTime, the Alabama-based company that makes special needs play equipment, has a matching grant program the group is applying for.

Next, Parents for Joy is awaiting City Council approval this fall with the goal of breaking ground on the new attraction next year.

“I’m so proud of our little group,” Allen said. “We just want something fun for everyone.”

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