When Olenka Villarreal talks about creating a level playing field for Palo Alto's children, she isn't merely reaching for a metaphor.
The energetic city resident is leading a drive to build the city's first "universal" playground -- one that would allow children with disabilities to have the same access to play structures and amenities as everyone else. The vision for the new "Magical Bridge Playground" includes sandless play lots, winding ramps, a cafe, a theater stage and a real bridge spanning Adobe Creek and leading to the rest of Mitchell Park.
The Magical Bridge playground would feature the usual playground amenities such as slides and swings, though the swings would have "bucket seats" to protect the child. The slides, meanwhile, would feature a ramp instead of stairs and ladders.
As the vice president of Friends of Palo Alto Parks, a nonprofit group that supports park upgrades and renovations, Villarreal is no stranger to enhancing the city's recreational facilities. But the Magical Bridge project hits a personal note. Every week, Villarreal drives her 8-year-old daughter, Ava, to Cupertino and pays $120 for Ava's 45-minute session on an indoor swing.
Villarreal compares Ava's therapeutic swinging sessions to a diet -- they need to be performed regularly throughout the week to be fully effective. The money is less of a problem than the difficulty of booking a spot, she said.
For the past two years, Villarreal and a group of about two dozen community volunteers have been spearheading an effort to build the new playground in Mitchell Park. Her group, Friends of the Magical Bridge, has already garnered the support of city staff, various commissions and, most critically, the City Council, which agreed to provide 18,000 square feet of undeveloped space in Mitchell Park for the new playground and to contribute up to $300,000 for construction. The project's cost is estimated around $1.3 million.
At its annual retreat in January, the council identified the Magical Bridge playground as one of the projects the city should pursue to address its newest priority, "community collaboration for youth well-being." In March, the council recognized Friends of the Magical Bridge with a special proclamation, at which time some council members seemed surprised to learn that many residents in their affluent city are forced to drive to San Carlos or Fremont to take their children to the playground.
The council also included the Magical Bridge project in its latest capital budget. The document calls Palo Alto a "magnet for families of special needs children" and estimates there are about 1,500 special-needs children between the ages of 4 and 16 locally. This makes Palo Alto "one of the largest special needs communities on the West Coast."
The council is scheduled to approve on Monday night a letter of intent with the Friends group that would detail the terms of the partnership.
But while city officials agree that there are many good reasons to build the universal playground at Mitchell Park, the Friends group is facing one formidable obstacle: the need to raise about $1 million. The project's chief proponents are residents with special needs, or with children who have special needs. It's a sizable but disparate group, without a traditional organizational structure or a time-tested fundraising mechanism. While a nonprofit group like Friends of Lytton Plaza, which is composed chiefly of downtown developers and well-connected business people, swiftly raised money for the 2009 renovation of the University Avenue plaza, a group like Friends of Magical Bridge faces a steeper climb.
Mayor Sid Espinosa acknowledged the challenge at the March 21 meeting, just after the council heard a presentation from Villarreal about the project.
"It's no easy feat -- fundraising in these economic times," Espinosa said. "But I think that as we work together and get the word out there, and find people who understand the need in this community and are passionate about finding play spaces for kids, we can work together to get this done."
So far, volunteers have raised about $150,000 and hope to see the fundraising accelerate in the coming months. Their goal is to have the new playground in place by the end of 2012.
To attract donations, the Friends group is proposing naming certain playground facilities after major donors, who would also have a say in the playground's design. The group is also selling $250 tiles with buyers' names that would be featured at a prominent location in the park. The Friends are also planning a fundraising event for the end of the year, Villarreal said.
As it seeks to raise money, the group is stressing the fact that the universal playground isn't just for special-needs children but also for adults with disabilities, seniors and all other children. The goal, from the group's perspective, is to educate and to make everyone in Palo Alto feel accepted, Villarreal said.
"We say the playground is the first outdoor classroom the kids are exposed to," Villarreal said. "Our schools are really touting acceptance and inclusion, but once you step out of the classroom you're back into the world where sometimes you feel like you don't belong.
"We know we can do better."
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