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Follow Us to Possibility Playground

By Carol Pomeday
Ozaukee Press staff May 15, 2008

When hundreds of people come together in September to build Possibility Playground in Upper Lake Park in Port Washington, no one will be happier than Mardy McGarry and Sue Mayer. The women have spearheaded the effort to build the $450,000 play area that will be as large as a football field and keep children of all abilities active for hours.

McGarry, an early childhood education teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Port Washington, has dreamed of a playground like that since she took her students to the All Children’s Playground in Cedarburg, which is also designed for kids with or without disabilities.

For the first time, McGarry said, she could watch her students play on all the equipment instead of standing on the playground with her arms outstretched, ready to catch them if they fell.

Traditional playgrounds, including those at her school, are often inaccessible to children with disabilities or have only one or two structures they can play on, she said.

“I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t we do this in Port?’ and started voicing it to parents four or five years ago,” McGarry said.

When Mayor Scott Huebner formed a task force to explore uses for the We Energies coal dock along the lakefront, McGarry joined the committee and suggested an accessible playground be built there.

“It was one of many ideas, but the question was, ‘When would this happen?’” McGarry said. “In the meantime, I was building up momentum for the playground.”

McGarry is a member of the Port Washington Kiwanis Club and suggested it as a project. The club embraced it, but as McGarry researched such playgrounds, she realized it was going to be very expensive.

“There was no way a club of 40 people was going to raise a half-million dollars, and I knew it was too big for me to head,” McGarry said.

Some people would have given up, saying it was beautiful but impossible dream, but not McGarry, who has been a special education teacher for 28 years and is a strong advocate for children with disabilities.

She turned to Mayer, who has a marketing background and home-schools her 7-year-old son Sam, who has Down syndrome. Mayer — who often uses playgrounds as a classroom, rewarding Sam for reading a sentence or following a sequence by allowing him go down a slide or climb a structure — barely blinked, but insisted, “I want good swings.”

Sam, like most children with disabilities, has poor muscle tone and can’t use most swings. Mayer learned the hard way that her son has outgrown baby swings.

“I had to call my husband on his cell phone once and tell him Sam was stuck in a baby swing,” Mayer said.

The parents were able to free the boy, who weighed 60 pounds at the time.

Mayer became aware of the needs and gifts of special children through her children. Her older son has dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. When Sam was born, she became his teacher.

“Sam has taught me more than I could ever hope to teach him,” she said. “He’s taught me patience, persistence and to look and notice the small things in life. He slows me down and grounds me.

“He doesn’t judge anyone. He likes people unconditionally. If more of us could look at the world the way he does, we would get along better.” Mayer said she often consults with McGarry if she’s having a problem with Sam.

McGarry decided to pursue a degree in special education after working a year at Bethesda Lutheran Home in Watertown, which serves children and adults with disabilities. “I found out I liked it and I was pretty good at it,” McGarry said. “It’s really fun to get up every morning and say, ‘I want to go to school.’ I love my job.

“But if I had a special-needs child, I couldn’t do this. I tell people I don’t burn out because I have them for only 2-1/2 hours at a time.”

At the heart of the women’s effort is the belief that all children deserve a safe, secure and fun place to play. Possibility Playground promises to provide that and much more.

It was designed by Leathers and Associates of Ithica, N.Y., using ideas from area children and parents.

McGarry, Mayer and Sam visited similar playgrounds in Appleton and Manitowoc and took the best from each. Engineers and physical therapists who work with children with disabilities were also consulted.

Some of the best ideas came from children and adults who have disabilities, McGarry said.

Chris Mathews, a fifth-grader at Thomas Jefferson Middle School who is visually impaired, wrote a letter in Braille suggesting all structures and ramps have signs in Braille, noting he likes to know what he will encounter when he starts up a ramp. He also suggested a tactile map of the playground and iron pipes that make musical tones.

One of the fun things about the playground is the way children of all abilities have embraced it, the women said.

“We can’t emphasize enough that this is not a handicapped playground. It is for all children,” Mayer said. “The kids had great ideas and we used a lot of them.

“This is going to be a jewel for Port Washington. It’s not the type of playground where you go for an hour or so. You can be there all day and not try everything.”

McGarry predicted it will be a destination for school field trips and families.

A steering committee of about a dozen dedicated members, mostly parents, has raised $210,000 so far and hopes to raise the remainder through sponsors, grants, donations and fund-raisers before the build week, which will be Sept. 17 to Sept. 21.

Sponsors are being sought for every aspect of the playground. Many of the signature structures, such as the lighthouse, ship, fire truck, police car and castle, have been purchased by companies or individuals, but there are more available.

A white picket fence will enclose the entire playground, which will have one entrance. Each of the 1,020 pickets can be engraved with a name or logo for $30. Bricks for the entryway are being sold for $50 to $750 each.

The most expensive aspects of the playground are the poured-in-place rubber surface and wood-and-resin composite ramps that will be wide enough for wheelchairs and connect the play structures. Together, they cost $250,000.

The rubber surface provides a level, soft ground that will cushion falls and be easy to maneuver with wheelchairs and walkers. The surface is thicker in areas where children jump or can fall, such as swings and climbing structures.

“You can’t get hurt on it,” McGarry said. “Any surface that is shredded can’t be used by wheelchairs and is difficult for anyone with an unsteady gait.”

The women hope to see business or service organization logos on the rubber surface and ramps.

They also hope to find sponsors for whimsical fiberglass art creations by Marina Lee of Milwaukee, who would work with students to create fanciful creatures that can be placed throughout the playground.

Since both women teach children with special needs, there will be plenty of fun educational components. There will be signs asking children to find things, such as three turtles or five birds. Game boards will enhance hand-eye coordination and each climbing structure will tone different muscles.

But mostly it will be a fun place for children of all abilities to play together.

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