It really is going to be fun for everyone if a project to build an all-abilities playground in Missoula reaches its funding goal.
On Thursday, Mayor John Engen stood in the middle of McCormick Park on a chilly afternoon as a small crowd of parents and children watched him receive a Publishers Clearing House-sized check for $150,000. The money is a grant from the Morris and Helen Silver Foundation, and will go toward the construction of a new, universally accessible playground the city hopes to break ground on in McCormick this summer.
The Silver Foundation already has significant ties to the park, donating land that includes the areas where Silver’s Lagoon and the Currents Aquatic Center are built.
When the group of local parents saw the need for an all-inclusive playground, the mayor said, they got together and began to raise funds while at the same time convincing the city the idea was worthy.
“And that’s a very Missoula thing to do,” Engen said.
The idea for the playground started around 18 months ago when Jenny Montgomery moved to Missoula.
Montgomery is the co-chair of the Playground Project, which is raising private funds for the playground. She moved here with her husband, who is from Missoula, in 2011 to open Montgomery Distillery.
After arriving, she attempted to find an adaptive swing that could be used by her son Heath, who uses a walker because he has cerebral palsy. Unable to locate one, she reached out to Missoula Parks and Recreation, who told her that there were no adaptive swings in the area.
Montgomery met with Donna Gaukler, the director of Parks and Rec, and the two of them decided that the idea of making a place where all children, regardless of ability, could play together should be a priority. Montgomery helped to organize a group of parents and began raising money for the playground.
In addition to smaller donations, the Playground Project has secured backing from Community Medical Center and St. Patrick Hospital, as well as local businesses that sponsored an all-abilities baseball game held last year at Ogren Park at Allegiance Field.
Plans for the park include adaptive swings and other equipment that could be used by children in wheelchairs or those who have muscular disabilities. A poured-rubber surface will eliminate the difficulties wheelchairs have traversing wood chips, sand and grass.
There also will be areas designed with autistic children in mind, which will engage more senses, as well as being slightly secluded from the rest of the playground so as to not overwhelm them, Montgomery said.
“The important part is that children will be there and able to play together, not play parallel,” Gaukler said.
Gaukler said Thursday’s grant money will join $50,000 earmarked by the city for the project, along with money raised by the Playground Project, bringing the total funds raised so far to more than $290,000.
While the design for the project is not final, Gaukler said if fundraising efforts reach $350,000, it would be enough to break ground this summer and build the first phase of the park, which would encompass more than half of the planned features. The full design for the playground would require about $500,000.
“I really see this as the next big community build project. Following along the lines of things we have in this town like Dragon Hollow and the carousel,” Gaukler said. She hopes the park also will serve as a model for other communities in the state.
“The important thing is that it isn’t going to be a ‘handicapped kids’ park. It’s going to be an ‘every kid’s park,’ ” Montgomery said.
More information about the Playground Project can be found at allabilitiesplayground.org.
Dillon Kato is a journalism student at the University of Montana and an intern at the Missoulian. He can be reached at 523-5251 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.