Making a little sense of community to go a long way
After nearly five years of planning, fundraising and coordinating, Billie Patton’s dream of making over the playgrounds in the Village of Blissfield, Mich., is nearly complete.
The working mother of three children found the time to help organize the Blissfield Playground Committee, which was the driving force behind remaking three separate deteriorating playgrounds in the village.
One was rebuilt in the summer of 2002, with another one completed last year. The third area – part of the Able to Play Boundless Playground program – is currently under construction and should be finished later this summer.
All three projects have a combined price tag of more than $350 thousand and every penny was generated through private donations, volunteer labor or grants. But how was it done? Let Patton explain.
“It’s kind of the chicken and the egg thing,” said Patton, explaining her initial efforts to get the playground effort started. “In order to have a design, you have to have a budget. You don’t know what to have a budget if you don’t know what you are going to have for fundraisers. … We really struggled with that. So we just decided we were going to raise that money no matter what it took, rather than trying to figure out what was possible.”
It all started about five years ago when Patton was part of her daughter’s preschool field trip to Ellis Park, a park that sits in the middle of the village along the River Raisin. She and other parents were shocked to see the condition of much of the playground equipment. In fact, parents couldn’t put their children in the rusted-out baby swings.
Patton went to village officials asking why the equipment was in such disrepair. The answer, one commonplace in today’s economic climate, was that the village did not have the funds to replace the equipment, some of it 30 years or older.
“The equipment wasn’t anywhere up to snuff with the impression I have of the rest of the community,” Patton said.
Discouraged but not defeated, Patton remembered a project she was involved with a few years earlier when she lived in Marion, Ohio. Patton and other community members got together for a community “build,” using volunteer labor to replace older playground equipment.
“I called [village officials] and asked why they haven’t had a community build,” Patton said. “The answer was no one has stepped up to do it.”
She thought, “This could work in Blissfield, too.” Drawing upon that past experience, Patton threw her energies behind the project. The goal was to raise enough money to rebuild all three of the village’s playgrounds: first, Bachmayer Park, then Ellis Park, and finally Bachmayer Little League Park.
Other parents and community leaders jumped on board the project, and soon the Blissfield Playground Committee was formed. Less than a year later, they were working on their first playground build.
Fundraising was obviously a primary goal, but also planning what sort of equipment each park would need. Committee members visited other communities in the area to get ideas, and began searching for a playground equipment company that would help with design and other aspects of the project.
One committee member, Ted Case, knew the right company to call. As a longtime supporter of Michigan International Speedway, a 180,000-plus-seat racetrack less than 30 minutes from Blissfield, Case had worked with Recreation Creations, Inc., in designing and constructing a playground on the MIS infield. The project was one of the first of its kind and was built to serve as a playground for racing families and their children.
Case, who had headed many, many similar projects in Blissfield, phoned Keith Addleman, RCI’s vice president. Ironically, Addleman had a personal tie to Blissfield. His family had once lived in the area, and an uncle of the same name had died while playing football in Ellis Park in 1936. So when Case called, Addleman was more than willing to help. The company ended up providing the equipment for the first two playground builds in Blissfield.
During the first build, RCI donated some of the equipment and discounted other pieces to help keep the costs down. It also helped with the design, and even was on site to aid in the construction process, which began in September 2002. It took less than one month to complete, with a price tag of about $70 thousand.
“We were pretty much flying by the seat of our pants,” Patton said of the first playground build. “We were calling everyone we knew in the last month trying to get the money. One, two or three [playgrounds]. We were so gung-ho, we were so excited. ‘We’re doing three!’ Looking back, man, we should have stopped with one.”
Next was Ellis Park, a low-lying area near the River Raisin, which can flood the park up to several times a year. This was supposed to be the least ambitious project of the three, which had a budget of approximately $30,000. The build was scheduled for one weekend in late June. However, rains washed out most of the work being done, and rescheduling was a logistical nightmare, Patton said.
“Where we dug a hole, water would come up,” Patton said of the conditions of the second build. “There wasn’t anything we could do. … We could have had that thing done in a day. It was just hard to get volunteers to come back.”
But project No. 2 was finally completed.
Bachmayer Little League Park initially was last on the priority list. However, when committee members learned of a statewide initiative that wanted to build 19 unique “Boundless Playgrounds” in Michigan, those plans drastically changed.
The idea behind a Boundless Playground was to enable a child with any disability – physical, mental or emotional – to use the playground unassisted. Backed by funding from the Kellogg Foundation, the Boundless program was designed to change the way playgrounds are constructed, Patton said.
“The idea is that children will be playing together,” Patton said, “whether it is friends they meet for the first time or whether it is their brother, sister or parent with a disability, who is getting on the playground for the first time with their kids.”
Patton and the committee began the long and arduous application process, with Blissfield being one of more than 200 communities vying for only 19 grants.
“The process was huge,” Patton said. “It took our whole committee over a month. Each person took a section and then we kept meeting every week and going over each other’s work.”
The committee’s attention to detail was rewarded when they learned a Boundless Playground was coming to Blissfield.
However, the preliminary arrangement had the playground being built in Ellis Park. After returning from three days of training with the Boundless program, Patton realized that Ellis Park was out because of its location in the floodplain.
Scrambling, the committee had to come up with an alternative site or lose the grant. The focus turned to Bachmayer Little League Park, and soon there was a design in place.
Once completed, the Boundless Playground will be the Crown Jewel of Blissfield’s park system. Unlike any other playground in the region, the Boundless will be fully ramped to allow wheelchair access almost anywhere in the park. But it is not designed only for the physically handicapped. There will be areas for children with autism, the hearing impaired and those with Down’s Syndrome. And there is plenty of physically challenging equipment for children of all skill and ability levels.
“It’s a playground that doesn’t stop with the equipment,” Patton said. “It’s a whole environment.”
Even the plants and landscaping are specifically designed for children at play.
“The goal of the National Center for Boundless Playgrounds is to totally change the industry so that 10 years from now, nobody would ever think of designing a playground any other way,” Patton said. “It would be the standard.”
Though the committee still needs to raise about $90,000 of the estimated $250,000 cost of the Boundless Playground, Patton is optimistic it will happen.
Despite the challenges and setbacks she experienced along the way, Patton said she would encourage other communities to look into safer playgrounds, especially the barrier-free playground design the Boundless program advocates.
“Play is where development begins,” Patton said. “ ‘Play well with others’ is a term that carries into adulthood, and if kids don’t learn to play well with everyone, that’s an important lesson.
“It’s important because children need to feel included. Even if one child is not included, it is one child too many.”