City News

A ‘Playce' for kids with disabilities

This isn't just a new playground.

It is Mecklenburg County's first public playground designed so that children with different abilities can play together.

It's also different because the community – more than 3,700 volunteers with varying abilities – built it.

From sun-up to sundown over seven days, they cut, drilled, sawed and painted at 340-acre Nevin Community Park in northeast Charlotte.

They turned towering piles of lumber into an 11,780-square-foot NASCAR-themed adventure called Race Playce, located next to a smaller, existing playground and shelter.

Many volunteers plan to return for the grand opening ceremony Oct. 29.

They hope to see the project and the vision completed.

“I think it was just dear to everyone's heart … and it was a challenge,” said Laura Gallagher, a Mecklenburg County staffer who used vacation time to add to the hours she donated over several days. “My wrists are still a little bit sore, but my mom taught me (to appreciate) a labor of love, and that's what it was.”

About one in five Americans over the age of 5 have a disability, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation playgrounds comply with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet, most fall short of being barrier-free.

Park and Recreation's goal was to take $400,000 approved by the county and create a playground where a disability would not be a barrier. Planners studied similar projects in other communities.

Then the planners brought together about 170 children with varied abilities in November 2007 to ask how they would build a playground.

The final design includes contrasting colors to help visitors with impaired vision.

There are quiet places within the play areas for children with autism.

Children in wheelchairs have a smooth surface to go from one play area to another. Ramps, rather than stairs, are an integral part of the design.

Over the summer, Park and Recreation put out a call for skilled and unskilled volunteers to help build the playground. Families, church groups, businesses, social groups, fraternities, sororities and sports teams were invited.

Volunteers turned out by the hundreds for three shifts a day Sept. 29 through Oct. 5, donating 14,800 hours of labor.

The volunteers weren't working with kits or prefabricated pieces. They were working with raw materials.

Gallagher, a civil engineer with construction experience, was one of a dozen or so “build captains” on each shift who directed teams of 10 to 12 volunteers. The captains handed out assignments, encouragement and, when necessary, lessons.

Kevin Wallace, a build captain who lives in the Nevin community and has a 15-year-old son with autism, just remembers the group's massive numbers.

“I got to meet a lot of different people from numerous backgrounds – people here in the neighborhood to upper-high-end managers of Bank of America and Wachovia,” Wallace said. “We had a number of volunteers from out of state who came in on a bus, about 75 or 100 of them.”

Throughout construction, there were always people willing to help, said Karla Gray, Therapeutic Recreation Division manager.

“There was this infectiousness,” Gray said. “Once they got out there and there were jobs to be done, people were stepping up and saying, ‘I can do it.'”