Last fall, while Heather Carson was volunteering with the playground project at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary, Brooke Kiel was beginning to look into the possibility of installing a sensory area for students with special needs at Sudduth Elementary.
Though the two hadn’t met, they were both working with Mississippi Playscapes’ playground consultant Max Maxwell for design input.
“He actually got us together,” said Kiel, who teaches preschool at Sudduth. “I was contacting Max about one thing and she was contacting him about another, and one day he just said, ‘you guys are both in the same town, you should work together on one project at a time, and you could get a lot more done’.”
It’s safe to say Maxwell was right.
With the help of the Starkville School District and several volunteers, Carson and Kiel helped secure a $20,000 construction grant last month to help fund a handicap-accessible playground at Sudduth, bringing the total amount raised for the project to $60,000.
The grant was made available through the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group and KaBoom!, a national non-profit that works to install playgrounds through community participation.
SSD was eligible for the grant because of its involvement with the Starkville Play Task Force and the city’s status as a 2012 Playful City USA community.
“That’s a great honor for the city to have this playground company focusing on Starkville as one of the tops in the nation,” Kiel said. “A lot of places are cutting playground budgets, Starkville is still installing brand new ones. It’s kind of unheard of right now.”
The playground will be one of the only all-handicap accessible playgrounds in the area, and thanks to a joint use agreement between SSD and the city, Carson, founder of the city’s GoPlay initiative, said the playground will be open to the public after school hours and on the weekends as well. She said the playground will allow children with special needs to play independently.
“That was our intent. We just want all children to be able to enjoy getting out side,” Carson said. “We want the kids to have fun. Play builds confidence, but it also improves cognitive, social and emotional development. We hope this will provide teachers and parents with another learning environment as well.”
Kiel thanked Maxwell and Mississippi Playscapes for their “outstanding” help in the design and selection of the equipment, but said a group of parents, teachers and an occupational therapist went through an equipment catalog together to ensure the playground met the needs of Starkville’s kids.
“We relied on Max for a lot,” Kiel said. “But we wanted to make sure this area reflected the needs of our kids. We said to ourselves, ‘What would they want to play on? What would they really enjoy?'”
Equipment specific to children with special needs can be more expensive, but Carson said the $20,000 grant covers the majority of that cost. The playground will be built on a pour-in-place rubber surfacing, which is also more expensive than other common surfacing options, but has greater impact absorption. Under the right conditions, the surface has more durability as well.
Carson said the SSD administration has been instrumental throughout the whole process, including contributing $30,000 to the project, half of the $60,000 goal. The project’s team of volunteers is also made up of several teachers from the district, who she said have worked countless hours.
For the remaining $10,000 Carson said a sponsorship opportunity elicited an impressive response from the community, with Starkville Junior Auxiliary alone donating $5,000. She said the groups that donated to this project are the same groups that donate to projects all over the city, something Carson said says a lot about leadership.
“This has seriously been grassroots,” Carson said. “For us to be in a position in less than a year having made our fund raising goal, I think that really speaks to our commitment as a district and as a community of how much we value children.”
As part of the requirements for the KaBoom! grant, the playground must be constructed through a community build, which Kiel said is scheduled for October 6 at Sudduth. This will save the project nearly $8,000 in labor costs.
Carson said groups and individuals are welcomed and encourages anyone interested in signing up to visit goplaykids.org for more information.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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