Gillette playground refurbished for handicap kids

By

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) β€” Playgrounds are something that we take for granted.

They are places that attract people of all ages, whether it's to become enthralled in an imaginary world of the monkey bars or to watch as your children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren frolic on the planks or pump their legs to make the swings take them higher.

Parks have been a common gathering place for generations.

But sometimes people can't partake in this meaningful entertainment.

They are the ones in wheelchairs. They sometimes have sight or sound impairments or any number of other forms of disabilities. But they still, like anyone else, want to take part in that special atmosphere that makes up a simple playground.

With the help of Amanda Lukehart, 34, Gillette has met those challenges and has installed Wyoming's first inclusive playground for people with disabilities and special needs. That new playground now is in Gillette's heart at City Park.

It's the perfect location because it's right next to the City Pool, which recently acquired a wheelchair lift. It's also behind Twin Spruce Junior High, which is the school that children with special needs go to, Lukehart said. City Park also had the room and there already were handicapped parking spots established.

"There's a big difference between inclusive, play equipment that everybody can use, and ADA compliant," Lukehart said.

ADA simply means that a disabled person can get up to the playground and touch it. All of Gillette's playgrounds are ADA compliant. But inclusive means that disabled people can actually get on the playground.

Lukehart's 17-year-old son, Timothy, has severe cerebral palsy and is visually impaired. Until now, he wasn't able to experience the joys that a playground can bring.

"We'd take him over there and ... the other kids would play and he would just laugh along," Lukehart said.

It wasn't until Emily and Tom Bybee moved to Gillette from Boise, Idaho, that Lukehart thought that there could be another option.

The Bybees' 9-year-old daughter, Jordyn, also has cerebral palsy. When they lived in Boise, they took Jordyn to a large park that was designed for disabled people, Emily said on a warm Saturday morning as she watched her daughter smile up at her dad while he pushed her on the special wheelchair swing.

The swing is her favorite, Tom said later. "She likes the movement."

Lukehart was intrigued about the possibility of getting a special needs park in Gillette.

In 2010, she wrote several letters to the editor and gave a petition to the city with numerous signatures from people who work with those who have special needs. A short time later, the city's former Public Works Director Rick Staskiewicz called Lukehart.

For the past two years, Lukehart worked with Staskiewicz and the city's parks division to create the new inclusive park.

"They let me pick out pretty much all of the equipment that I wanted, within a budget," she said.

The city listened to a lot of her input because her son is disabled, and because she works for the Wyoming Department of Health as a case manager for people with developmental disabilities.

From her experience working with so many disabled people, Lukehart knew what was needed in such a park and worked to incorporate multiple sensory aspects into it.

In the end, she wanted the playground to be accessible by a ramp so that the children could grasp the height of the jungle gym. She wanted sensory aspects for blind people and for deaf people. She wanted people in wheelchairs to be able to experience what they otherwise could not, such as the feel of a swing.

Making the playground a reality cost the city $170,694, and the work was done by Norton Construction of Gillette. The park upgrades finally got under way this past summer and the overhaul was finished about mid-September.

But the timing was off.

City Parks Superintendent Brian Creek, who had gotten involved in the planning, left the city in June. Then Staskiewicz resigned Aug. 30.

"Everyone that was involved was gone," Lukehart said.

Staskiewicz had planned to have a big open house, but that never happened. The new playground kind of was forgotten, she added.

Thus far, Lukehart hasn't noticed a lot of new people β€” aside from those she's told β€” at the park but hopes that word will spread. There are plenty in Gillette who would benefit from the new playground.

In 2010, the Wyoming Department of Health indicated that there were 361 children with disabilities in Gillette. But most of the children in BOCHES and those tracked by the Department of Family Services are not in that number because there's a long waiting list for getting into the state's Medicaid Developmental Disability waiver program. That number also doesn't figure in the amount of adults in Gillette who have disabilities.

"This is a big deal for Gillette," Lukehart said. "We are the only town in Wyoming that has a park like this. ... In a lot of the surrounding states, it's kind of a new thing. I think that's something that we should be proud of."

Lukehart and her family have made good use of Gillette's newest playground, which they go to regularly.

"He's (Timothy) super excited about it. He asks me to go to the park almost every day," she said. "It's neat because my other kids are excited to go to the park, too."

On this day, Timothy was joined at the park with the Bybees and a small group from Sol Domus, a day habilitation center for special needs adults.

Dori Bartz, 49, who has Down syndrome, was one of three members of Sol Domus who wandered through the playground. Bartz's biggest feat of the morning was facing her fear of the playground's windy, tunnel slide.

"You can do it Dori, you can do it," Sol Domus nurse Beth Welper said, encouraging Bartz to go down the slide.

"I can't," Bartz replied as she sat at the top of the covered slide.

Second later Dori called out "Bessie?"

Bessie White Face, another Sol Domus nurse, reassured Bartz that she was at the bottom of the slide waiting for her.

Bartz made the push, followed instantly by a drawn out, "Bessieeee," before she appeared in the ground opening of the slide, a wide smile spread across her face.

She was greeted by a smiling Bessie.

It was a little scary, Dori said with all seriousness after she was out of the slide, "but I did it anyway."

Timothy hasn't yet tried the slide, but he has tested the various other trinkets in the playground, including the swing, drums, maracas and the sound amplifier. One of his favorites so far seems to be the buttons that when pushed, emit a sound and describe what that sound is.

There aren't a lot of things in Gillette that are inclusive like this park, Lukehart said. A lot of people don't have the resources to take their children to places that do have the required amenities, so this playground is just one step further to helping those families by giving them a free and fun place to spend the day.

It's a gift to the community that will keep on giving.

___

Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

©2014 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.