Kara McClurken has been advocating for a more inclusive and accessible playground for children with disabilities in Charlottesville since 2018, the same year her son, Bennett, died. Now, plans for a playground are moving forward with the backing of the city.
Bennett’s Village, a nonprofit named for McClurken’s son, is dedicated to building Central Virginia’s first accessible playground.
“There is no place in central Virginia where folks of all ages and all abilities have play space, access to structures that really let them have inclusive play,” McClurken said during a city presentation Tuesday.
Bennett’s Village first proposed the playground project to City Council in 2019. The campaign now has the support of the city and is working with the Charlottesville Department of Parks and Recreation to make the playground a reality.
Bennett’s Village held three public input sessions in partnership with the city, one in person at the site Monday and two via zoom Tuesday.
“Working with the city, it was determined that Penn Park is probably the best location in the system for such a playground. We have a large parking lot and it’s easy to get to,” said Chris Gensic, parks and trails planner with the city.
Bennett had a terminal form of Spinal Muscular Atrophy type I, a genetic disorder that causes muscular weakness. While he couldn’t access activities at many traditional playgrounds because he was in a wheelchair, he loved visiting PARK365, an accessible playground in Richmond.
McClurken was inspired to start a similar park in Charlottesville.
“When I talk about this village, this is not just a playground for kids. We think of this as a space where all ages, all abilities can come together and enjoy our outdoor play spaces,” McClurken said.
Bennett’s Village and the city are seeking input from the community as they move forward with the project. Gensic said Parks and Recreation staff will analyze the input and work with city management staff as well as Bennett’s Village. The plans and input may eventually be presented to City Council.
“We have monthly conversations with the city now, with Parks and Rec, to talk about sort of next steps. Now it is a matter of making final decisions about what we think we want and then running it to the [Americans with Disabilities Act] coordinator in the city and getting feedback from them,” McClurken said.
McClurken has been working with parents and families of children with a variety of disabilities, as well as special education teachers in Albemarle County Public Schools to get ideas so that the playground will serve a wider population.
The nonprofit hired an architectural firm, Mahan Rykiel, which designed a plan for the playground that has won multiple awards.
“We chose them in part because the lead architect has a daughter who’s on the [autism] spectrum and so it was a research interest of hers. She has education and training, but also has very personal experience with her own family. We’ve tried to let personal experiences drive that design,” McClurken said.
The playground is designed as accessible to wheelchairs and those with mobility issues. It is also designed for children with other issues such as autism. There are hiding pods for children who may want to step away and be alone if they are overstimulated.
The design also includes “donut” swings, which a child can lay on, and a cableway, similar to a zip line, that would be accessible to children in wheelchairs.
The first part of the project will be a treehouse, which Bennett’s Village hopes to complete in 2023. The next parts of the playground will be built in phases as funding comes in. Community input is vital and will help determine which parts of the playground are built first, McClurken said.
Funding, however, is a major barrier. McClurken said the project will cost an estimated $5 million while Bennett’s Village has raised a little over $170,000.
While the group primarily plans to gather through grants and fundraisers, there are plans to at some point request funding through the city’s Capital Improvement Program and seek a possible financial commitment from Albemarle County.
The nonprofit has also been in touch with state representatives.
“This is going to be a community project, so we are open to all possible funding sources,” McClurken said. “There is a process. It takes time. It takes years, but we are looking at all avenues,”
Donations can be made at bennettsvillage.org. Suggestions for the project can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Individuals and families of individuals with disabilities are encouraged to reach out to email@example.com to take a bigger part in the project.
“I can tell my story and I will continue to tell my story about Bennett, but it’s not about Bennett anymore,” McClurken said. “I do this work in honor of my son and in memory of my son, but it’s really about creating safe and inclusive spaces for my friends and neighbors.”