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When Olenka Villarreal couldn’t find a playground for her daughter, who was born with disabilities, she launched an effort to build one. The Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto, California, is touted as the most accessible playground in the country. Built for all abilities and all ages, it attracts around 25,000 visitors each month. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson reports.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness month. But awareness of people with abilities other than one's own doesn't have to start at the office or on the job site. It can start as soon as a child begins to play. And so we bring you the story of one mother in California who decided to take matters into her own hands when she discovered her local playgrounds were not accessible to her young daughter. PBS NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson has more.
Olenka Villarreal's 16-year-old daughter Ava was born with physical and cognitive disabilities. When Ava was young, her doctors encouraged Villarreal to take Ava to the playgrounds near their home in Palo Alto, California, for physical activity.
They would say to me, take her to swing. Get the movement going in her inner ear. It creates balance and awareness of space. And it was at that moment that I realized in the 35 playgrounds that were in my own community, not a single one was right for Ava because she couldn't hold on to the swings. So I approached the City of Palo Alto, and to their credit they said to me, 'Why don't you design the kind of playground you think we would benefit from in our community.'
And so … Villarreal did. The well-connected marketing expert, who was also vice president of the non-profit Friends of Palo Alto Parks, tapped into her Silicon Valley network…eventually raising more than 4 million dollars. After seven years, the Magical Bridge Playground opened in 2015. Organizers claim it's the most accessible and inclusive playground in the country.
Most traditional playgrounds don't allow everyone to play together.
Peter Jensen is a landscape architect who designed the Magical Bridge Playground. He organized it into zones, like spinning, sliding and swinging. Each zone contains multiple pieces of equipment.
It just is guaranteeing that really no matter what your ability is, that you will be able to experience that play activity, whatever it may be.
Jensen says, the playground's system of gently sloping ramps is a key feature.
Instead of just having a pre-fabricated steel ramping system, this really goes beyond that and starts to incorporate that ramping into the overall design.
The ramps lead to the second story of the playhouse.
Most kids that have an inability to get up to a higher level don't get a chance to experience a treehouse or an elevation, see the perspective of the playground in a different way.
The ramps also lead to the playground's slide mound. Jensen showed us a unique feature at the bottom – something he calls a "dignity landing."
Most the time when kids slide down on the slide, they would get to the bottom of the slide and then pretty much just be on the ground. The dignity landing, which is this piece right here, basically allows kids to slide down, when you get the bottom, then you can move yourself over, and wait for, if you need assistance to move out of the way, you sit here and do that without getting hit by other kids coming down the slide.
Over at the swing set, every swing is one of these more supportive bucket swings. At a typical playground, there might be just one, which could make a kid who needs it feel self-conscious. There's a motion-activated laser harp so kids can play around with musical notes. The ground is padded with soft rubber and there are no curbs to step over. And there are special pods for someone who needs a break from all the stimulation.
So at a typical playground, Robbie would look out of place.
Robbie Batista and his mother Beth Goddard have been coming to Magical Bridge since it first opened.
What's your favorite thing to do here?
Probably, just, having some snack with a bunch of my friends.
Yeah. We like to come here and have a snack with his friends.
Robbie loves the activities. The slides, the music. But it's so much more than that. It really is. It's about being able to interact and play with kids, but also other parents. There is conversations that start here that might not start other places. Just today, for example, we were, he was in the treehouse. A little boy came over and sat with him in the treehouse and said 'Hey.' And Robbie said, 'Hey.' And it was a nice interaction that again, might not typically happen.
Magical Bridge founder Olenka Villareal says, this isn't a playground just for kids with disabilities. Its inclusive design means everyone can enjoy it.
That was the overarching goal – is for me to be able to bring both of my kids to the same place.
The innovative playground is tremendously popular. On the Wednesday morning we visited, Magical Bridge was teeming with people by 10 am.
How many visitors do you usually get here?
We see about 25,000 visitors a month.
Is that typical for a playground around here?
Villarreal took us to another playground in the same park that was basically empty. All newly constructed playgrounds at public places like parks and schools must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act – or ADA. But Villarreal believes, that doesn't mean they're necessarily all that accessible.
This is ADA compliant. It's called the 'tan bark.' But we know for a fact that no wheelchair can get their wheels over this. Right? It's near – it's impossible. This of course is not level, so you'd flip over. What makes every two-story play structure ADA-compliant is this transfer platform. So this device allows somebody in a wheelchair to transfer themselves over, sit down watch everyone run by them. How much fun is that? Or, if they have the strength of Hercules, they can pull themselves up to the top. And that's unlikely as well.
Villarreal says not only is her playground accessible to people of all abilities — it's also open to people of any age. David Rogers works with Abilities United, a support group for people with disabilities. He regularly brings his adult clients here. Today, Jill Matranga experienced the merry-go-round.
David Rogers And she was enjoying that as much as I've seen her enjoy anything.
I'm not sure how often she gets to experience anything like that, unless we come here. It doesn't really happen.
Jeff McDonald, another Abilities United client, comes here once or twice a month.
What does it mean to you to be able to come here and play?
Oh God it's so exciting. I start to smile when I can go down that slide or swing on the swing set. You know kids look at me like, "What are you doing on there?" and I said, "I'm having fun!" (Laughs)
Jill Asher left her job at a tech company to help start the Magical Bridge Foundation.
Within a couple of weeks of us opening the playground we literally started getting requests from all over the country, all over the world, saying, 'Hey, we want a Magical Bridge playground.'
Asher and Villarreal are now building five more playgrounds in California and are upgrading the playgrounds at all of Palo Alto's elementary schools. They hope to bring Magical Bridge playgrounds to communities across the U.S.
Every time we leave here – what do you say? That was the best day ever!
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Megan Thompson shoots, produces and reports on-camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Her report "Costly Generics" earned an Emmy nomination and won Gracie and National Headliner Awards. She was also recently awarded a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship to report on the issue of mental health. Previously, Thompson worked for the PBS shows and series Need to Know, Treasures of New York, WorldFocus and NOW on PBS. Prior to her career in journalism she worked in research and communications on Capitol Hill. She originally hails from the great state of Minnesota and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a MA in Journalism from New York University.
Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
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