A Place to Dream: Accessible Playground Unites Children of All Abilities

Photo: A child rides his power wheelchair at the playground. Photo Courtesy of Joey Pollack

Climbing to the top of a jungle gym is an activity that most children and adults take for granted. But for the differently-abled children of Cleveland, Ohio's University Hospital, getting up high was merely a dream.

Thanks to the efforts of Jackie Fisher and Stacie Helpern, the co-creators of Preston's H.O.P.E. (Helping Others Play and Enjoy), an accessible playground in northeast Ohio has turned that dream into reality.

Though Preston's H.O.P.E. has raised enough funds to complete construction, the non-profit organization is still raising money for an endowment that will provide insurance and maintenance for the park over the next 20 years. If you are interested in making a donation, mail contributions to Preston's H.O.P.E., PO Box 510, Chagrin Falls, OH 44022-0510.

"When we started the project, we did a Dream and Design party at University Hospital, and we had children with all different types of disabilities there," says Helpern. "We gave them molding clay and crayons and building Legos and all sorts of things, and told them to build a playground of their dreams. The two main things that we learned out of that is the children wanted to be able to get up high and that they wanted to have the feeling of movement."

A seven-year project, Preston's H.O.P.E. incorporates those ideas in a Disney-esque park that encompasses 60,000 square feet of play area for children of all abilities. (A typical park is between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, says Helpern.) One of the park's unique features — an Imagination Village — allows children to access the second story of several themed houses via a raised walkway built to allow the passage of two wheelchairs side by side.

"The playhouses are probably the most different thing from any other playground; they're one- and two-story playhouses that are connected by a raised walkway, which was hugely important to the kids in wheelchairs because they otherwise could never get up high," says Fisher, who's son Preston was the inspiration for the park. Preston was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at 10 months and told he would not live past 2 or 3. Now almost 10 years old, Preston says his favorite area to play is the raised walkway.

For more information on Preston's H.O.P.E., visit To find a Boundless Playground in your state, search

The houses, designed by donors, each have an interactive learning theme. "One's a beauty salon, one's a full house. One's a firehouse, One is called the House that Jack Built, and it's donated by somebody who was a builder," says Helpern. "So, inside the house, we show all the things that a builder does — from drawing up plans, to working with the plumber and the electrical and the painter and all the different trades that work on the house. And then (we) show the finished product.

"One of the houses is a bank and inside the bank you have little clocks. One shows the time in New York and one shows the time in London… And then we also have the dollar bills, (asking) which president is this on this bill? And the answers are small and upside down. One of the houses is a gym, and so we have the three eights: they need eight glasses of water, eight hours of sleep and eight servings of vegetables."

For movement, Preston's H.O.P.E. offers a boat swing that glides back and forth and allows children to walk in and sit down, or roll in with a wheelchair.

Other activities at the park include a fully accessible theater, a huge sandbox where children can dig for dinosaur bones designed by a Cleveland artist, accessible picnic tables, Granny's Pavilion for playing checkers and chess, and an accessible train so all children can pretend to be a conductor.

"The swing area encompasses bucket swings for young children, your typical swing for the older children, a tire swing and then we have a swing for handicapped children (so) we can actually lay them down in there and strap them in," says Helpern. Other accessible features include transfer decks on the slides and chairs to enable children who use wheelchairs to safely maneuver equipment.

Fisher first got the idea to build Preston's H.O.P.E. when a friend sent her an article about a Boundless Playground in Los Angeles, which was inspired by another playground in Hartford, Conn., built by Boundless Playgrounds' Co-Executive Director Amy Jaffe Barzach. Barzach, who's son Jonathan died of spinal muscular atrophy, gave Fisher and Helpern the idea to host the Dream and Design party and also a Values and Outcome party with 20 adults (including architects, landscape architects, teachers and occupational therapists) who helped make the children's designs a reality.

Fisher and Helpern met with countless individuals, organizations and corporations for fund raising to help get the project off the ground. "There's so many people who have donated, and people donated materials to actually help us build it," says Helpern. "People donated dollars and also donated their services to get things built along the way… It's really funded by the community and built by the community."

Invacare, located in Elyria, Ohio, was one donor. "Invacare's whole mission is ?Yes You Can' and this was just a playground that let so many different people have that mentality," says Lara Mahoney, public relations specialist, Invacare. "(The kids) don't have to be looked at differently; they don't have to worry about anything. They can go with their able-bodied siblings and have a great time, too. It just was a very special mission, and there's nothing else like that in Ohio, let alone Northeast Ohio where Invacare is headquartered."

Mahoney also attended the grand opening on Sept. 3. "There were kids in power wheelchairs who were driving along popping balloons with the biggest smiles on their faces, (and) children who (were) taken out of their wheelchairs and put in these swings that are made especially for them," she says. "And it was just an incredible experience to see the smile on these kids' faces."

"Somehow the spot turned from this flat piece of grass to just this incredible, magical place," says Fisher.

"It's so beyond Preston at this point that it's just amazing to see everybody playing there," she says. "It just went even beyond children in wheelchairs; it went into sight impaired and hearing impaired through all the people we met and just kept going on and on. It just encompasses so many kids — and so many kids who are typical that just never appreciated before (that) people that are different (and aren't) able to do the same kinds of things they do. So, that's really the beauty of it."

The park, located at 26001 S. Woodland Road, Beachwood, Ohio, opened to the public Sept. 4. Admission is free.

This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Mobility Management.

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