Palo Alto breaks ground on Magical Bridge Playground

Donors, friends gather to celebrate construction of inclusive play space

With a flash of golden shovels and a spray of dirt picked up on the wind, Magical Bridge Founder Olenka Villarreal, Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd and supporters broke celebratory ground Monday morning at the site of Mitchell Park's forthcoming Magical Bridge Playground. About 100 community members attended the ceremony, with speeches from Villarreal, Shepherd, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and local families.

The playground, which aims to transcend Americans with Disabilities Act compliance to meet the needs of all children and their families, is slated to open in September. Physical work will officially begin next Monday.

Monday's festivities began with an introduction from Jill Asher, one of the project's supporters.

Addressing Villarreal, Asher said, "You have given your love, your strength, your passion and your time to a truly magical place."

Villarreal realized the need for an inclusive playground when she saw the limitations of standard playgrounds placed on her daughter, Ava, and other disabled children. Villarreal gained the support of many community members, many of whom formed an organization, Friends of the Magical Bridge, to support a fundraising campaign Villarreal launched in 2008 to raise the $3.1 million needed to build the playground. The goal was to create a play space that recognized the individual differences of children with autism, visual limitations and sensory and cognitive issues.

According to the project website, not one of Palo Alto's 34 playgrounds is configured to meet the needs of a wide array of physical and cognitive abilities.

Villarreal's speech addressed the limitations even ADA-compliant spaces can present.

"Only 10 percent of people with disabilities are in wheelchairs," Villarreal noted, adding that ADA-compliant only means that people in wheelchairs can enter a structure or a park, but not necessarily enjoy its offerings.

The Magical Bridge Playground, though, will be different. A "swinging and sway zone" will have devices that even children with limited trunk support can use. Both stories of a two-story playhouse as well as a spinning carousel will be wheelchair accessible. Three custom slides will be built with added space at the bottom for children who need extra time getting off the slide, an innovation dreamed up by students at The Girls' Middle School.

Chess and checker table tops will also encourage park visitors to "put the iPads down," Villarreal said. And Ada's Cafe, the Palo Alto eatery that hires developmentally disabled adults, will come by on a regular basis with a cart of treats.

Lauding Palo Alto as a town "famous for innovative thinking," Villarreal said, "Let's lead the way and show them how it's done."

Several families who will be particularly impacted by the playground's opening also spoke at Monday's ground-breaking.

Emily McQueen, who has been wheelchair-bound for 15 years after falling from a tree, took the stage with her nine-year-old son Alex and talked about being a disabled mother.

"The playground has always been a place of panic," she said, adding that her kids, at toddler age, could quickly scamper and crawl to places she couldn't reach.

"I am really excited to be up in the trees again with my boys," she said.

"This will be a park where our whole family can finally play together," Alex added.

Parents Joel and Maria Yang, with their twin daughters and soon-to-be first-graders Jemma and Jessa, also spoke to the importance of true accessibility. Jessa, who has spina bifida, rolled up the ramp to the stage in her wheelchair, she and her sister clad in matching pink petal skirts and oversized Magical Bridge t-shirts.

Joel said the family turned down admission at a local school because of its lack of wheelchair accessibility. A tanbark playground presented difficulties to Jessa, in her wheelchair, at recess.

He noted that Jessa could have always found other ways to play. But, he asked, "how disheartening would it be to be left out day after day?"

"Wheelchair-friendly means stroller-friendly, grandparent-friendly and just people-friendly," he added.

Dawn Billman, a member of Friends of the Magical Bridge, shared the experience of taking her daughter, who has leukemia, to the park. She said she constantly worried about sand getting in tubes and her daughter's chemo-induced sun sensitivity.

The playground, she said, will be "an oasis to escape daily visits from the hospital."

Peter Jensen, landscape architect for the Engineering Division of the city's Public Works Department and project manager for the playground, said all the required funding has been raised to see the playground built. However, the project's organizers are continuing to fund raise, with any additional funds going to other add-ons.

In addition to funding from individual and group donors like the Peery Foundation and the Enlight Foundation, the project has gained support with a $150,000 grant from Santa Clara County and $300,000 from the City of Palo Alto.

At the ground-breaking, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian quoted Ancient Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, saying that "the secret to all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious."

The fact that Palo Alto -- a town with 34 parks and 4,000 acres of open space -- is missing something is not obvious to many people, he said. He applauded Villarreal's perseverance and hailed the ground-breaking as a victory for her, the community and "every kid that ever has a moment of joy" at the playground.

Mayor Nancy Shepherd touched on Palo Alto's recently awarded recognition as the nation's most livable city, crediting the "people who make (playgrounds) like this happen for our community" as the ones who make it a truly livable place.

"It's your eyes and ears that keep us connected to what we need to do," she said.

One of Jensen's recent projects, Eleanor Pardee Park's updated tot lot, features some elements that will also be incorporated into the Magical Bridge Playground, such as blue rubber flooring and wheelchair-accessible spinning equipment. In a way, he said, the tot lot is a small preview of what's to come.

"It's a progression of making (Palo Alto's parks) more inclusive," he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2014 at 9:52 pm

I hope this project fixes the bike paths near this playground. The path next to the Unitarian Church is already in terrible shape with a blind corner near the tennis courts. It's going to be a real hazard with more traffic to this playground.

Maybe someone can convince the Unitarian Church to cleanup their landscaping the back like they are doing in front to make this path more safe.

Like this comment
Posted by Olenka Villarreal
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 23, 2014 at 10:28 pm

Hi "Anonymous," your wish is our command! In fact, fixing the bike path all along Nelson Drive is a magical benefit that the playground brings. We are also widening that blind corner near the tennis courts to avoid the hazards that you refererence.

We hope you will be pleased with the many upgrades to the area that will occur soon.


Like this comment
Posted by Janet Dafoe
a resident of University South
on Jun 24, 2014 at 11:35 am

Thank you to everyone who has made this magical playground possible! Especially Olenka Villarreal, who has tirelessly worked on this for years. It is going to be such a wonderful place for kids, and it's long overdue to have a place that is accessible to kids of all kinds of abilities! I'm so excited to see it happening, and grateful for everyone's efforts. I can't wait to see it! What an asset for our community! Including all kids in our community benefits everyone!

Like this comment
Posted by John Galt
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 24, 2014 at 9:37 pm

Could someone put a map up showing the location? Only vague references to the Unitarian Church, and maybe tennis courts.
Thanks, sounds like a real winner!

Like this comment
Posted by Olenka Villarreal
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 24, 2014 at 10:45 pm

Hi John and thank you, we do think that we have a real winner with our design and hope you agree!

I'd be happy to email you a map of the exact space within Mitchell Park. In fact, if anyone else has specific questions or comments, please feel free to direct them to me at

Our Facebook page is also updated very regularly: Web Link

We had such fun yesterday! Thanks to the many who attended, have a very magical summer and see you at our Ribbon Cutting ceremony in the late fall!

Like this comment
Posted by sara zirkel
a resident of another community
on Jun 25, 2014 at 6:21 am

My friend, Olenka, is AMAZING! INSPIRING! IMPRESSIVE! and one the most GOOD HEARTED people on the planet!!!
Her children, her husband, and her friends are grateful everyday for having her in our lives!! xoxoox

Like this comment
Posted by Excited about this magical park
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 25, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Congratulations Olenka and Friends of the Magical Playground. Your vision, dedication, and focus make this wonderful park a reality.

I look forward to all playgrounds taking a page from what is happening here.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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