Last November, the Leadership Training Initiative (LTI) graduated its ninth class adding to its more than 150 graduate leaders working in the New Richmond vicinity. LTI is one of the long-term investments contributing to the betterment of the community's future by the New Richmond Area Community Foundation.
"LTI is about helping citizens identify, fulfill, and sustain their capacity as leaders and contribute to our community's sustainability and self-determination," a description says on the NRACF website.
As part of the nine-month program, participants are charged with employing their newly developed leadership skills in a collaborative capstone project incorporating real-life ideas that will make a difference in the community.
Teresa DeYoung found herself somewhat apprehensive on "pitch day." She was not sure whether her personal connection to her project would be enough to persuade others to get behind her idea to build an all-inclusive playground in New Richmond.
"I was the last one to go that day because I wasn't sure emotionally where I was at with my project because I am the mother of Will and I have a very personal connection to this project," recalled DeYoung.
In the month following her presentation, as participants took time to review each idea and ask questions, people began to line-up behind DeYoung's idea, behind her son Will who lives with Down Syndrome.
Now 11 strong, the Will's Park Project team intends to see it through to completion.
"LTI ends and a lot of times projects end at the same time but we've continued to meet monthly since then just to keep this rolling because we all feel that it's a worthwhile cause that New Richmond is missing on right now," said project member Brian Schroeder.
The project distinguishes between a playground which is accessible and one which is inclusive. Accessible means the playground is "able to be reached or entered" by someone in a wheelchair because a ramp or curb cutout is provided. It does not guarantee all of the equipment will be equally accessible. Inclusive means a playground is not only accessible to people with all types of disabilities but so is the equipment.
"All inclusive meaning that it's accessible to all, a child or an adult in a wheelchair, any person that happens to be in a wheelchair, or anybody who has motor issues as far as getting around the park. The park will provide different sensory type play equipment versus typical slides and swings. It will have equipment that is safe for them, lower heights, handrails, rubber flooring surface, that kind of stuff," explained DeYoung.
There are several inclusive playgrounds in the area including Tri-Angels Playground in River Falls, Teddy Bear in Stillwater and Madison's Place in Woodbury but none are within easy reach of New Richmond area residents.
The Will's Park team has already secured a site for the playground in Freedom Park. After leaning initially toward locating the park centrally in the downtown district, the team scouted existing parks and land designated for parks and decided a location in Freedom Park fit the bill perfectly.
The city has assigned the parcel of property where the volleyball courts currently sit as the location for Will's Park. The location is close to the soccer fields as well as parking and what may eventually become a public beach. The team's plan to include permanent public restrooms and the requisite sewer and water infrastructure with the playground would seem to make it the likely beneficiary of a city partnership.
The plan calls for the team to raise enough money to design and build the park but upon completion turn over maintenance of the park to the city. The park would be incorporated into the city's overall park system at that time.
"It's the perfect spot for us plus we can help kick start the future development of the park," said DeYoung.
"We've been including the park board and the city in our discussions from the beginning. As an LTI group, we're all committed to completing the project, we want to do fundraising and help to design and build the park, but once we finish the park, we'll hand it off to the city and It will be part of the city's park network," said Schroeder.
"When we're done with this, we'll always have the pride factor, but the city will continue to maintain it. That's the nice part of it, their being willing to take that on," said team member Judy Monette.
Part of developing an LTI project includes creating a budget to pay for your project. The team estimates Will's Park will cost around $400,000 to build, $500,000 if they include the permanent restrooms. The unique equipment is expensive, but the most expensive item not including the bathrooms is the specialized poured rubber flooring. At $15 per square foot., it provides a surface conducive to wheelchairs and one which also minimizing injuries from falling.
The next step the team faces is fund raising. It is very early in the process but they realize they face competition for funds from a number of projects including the library, hockey arena and football field. In anticipation of what lies ahead, DeYoung has been exploring a partnership with Margaret Swanson, Executive Director of the NRACF. The foundation would act as the project's fiscal agent saving them from having to form their own 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and allowing donors to make tax deductible donations. The team is estimating something in the neighborhood of an 18-month campaign.
A late addition to the team, City Management Analyst Noah Wiedenfeld brings with him grant writing expertise and knowledge of state and federal ADA funding sources.
"Thirteen percent of people in St. Croix County have a disability. We don't have any all-inclusive playgrounds. We don't have playgrounds that are fenced in or that have dedicated handicap accessible restrooms. So right now it is very difficult for families with young children or adolescents with a disability to utilize the existing facilities. It's a lot of work to load everyone up to go to Stillwater, River Falls or Woodbury," said DeYoung.
The team has also accepted that there may be a need to educate the public anticipating the perception that an all-inclusive playground is just for children with disabilities. Mind you, it's more likely to be parents that need the education than their children.
"The nice thing about the design of these parks is, it's for everybody. It's not, this is the disabled playground. It's for everyone," Schroeder clarified.
The team has a community survey in the works to better understand which parks residents are using and why, whether it's equipment or green space, and whether they see an all-inclusive park as a valid need.
The unique design of an all-inclusive playground includes equipment that engages all of a child's senses making it more interactive at all levels than a typical playground. Equipment is likely to incorporate elements of sound like drums, reflective surfaces for visual effects, different textural surfaces, and additional railings, the poured rubber surface and a fence for safety.
This would be welcome for DeYoung and her son Will, the project's namesake. The Will's Park team found DeYoung's idea compelling enough to join her, educate themselves about the need and build a solution. The next step is to convince you of the same.
"For my son to be able to go to a playground and have the exact same experience that any other 6-year-old has, and for me to have that peace of mind knowing that he is safe and to see the smile on his face, that's what we want to build. This idea can grow our community in ways that we can't even imagine," DeYoung said.
To learn more about the Will's Park Project, contact the team at: firstname.lastname@example.org.