“This is a story of open hearts unencumbered by the cynicism of age.”
Think back to a simpler era, before American civic life felt so polarized. A more communal, more neighborly time. When the rewards of unity transcended the lure of division and our well-being was characterized by the strength of our connections.
You may be thinking of childhood, which is apt. Because this is a story of open hearts unencumbered by the cynicism of age.
Marigold Beson, 3, gives the new inclusive and accessible playground at Legacy Park in the city of Decatur a spin during the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday, March 9, 2023. PHOTO: Dean Hesse for Decaturish, supportyourlocalnews.com.
It was 2016 and the news seemed inconceivable. Changes were afoot on 77 pristine acres in southeast Decatur, complete with an idyllic campus of historic buildings. All in a place where land — coveted for residential and commercial development — is at a premium.
It was the United Methodist Children’s Home, occupants of the property since 1873, and it was up for sale.
The City of Decatur recognized the implications immediately and initiated a successful year-long effort to acquire it. In doing so, they opened the door to a question that ultimately consumed local conversation: What should this new community asset become over time?
Six months later, they began their search for an answer.
Scenes from a process: The Decatur community comes together to imagine the future Legacy Park.
Imagine 77, as it was called, was among the largest public visioning exercises in Decatur’s history. Hundreds of people participated, submitting and ranking countless proposals. And not just adults. Children contributed too.
One of the ideas that met with immediate support — playgrounds — was no surprise to anyone. Adults, after all, think in practical terms about things like recreation and facilities, budgets and spatial constraints. They’d surely allocate some portion of the property to the needs of Decatur kids.
But it was students at Oakhurst Elementary, reflecting an innocence most of us can barely remember, who put a finer, more crucial point on things. It can’t just be another everyday playground, they said. It needs to be for everyone. Every. One.
Big or small, toddler or tween, able-bodied or not, everyone should be able to have fun.
Legacy Park’s inclusive playground — or at least the idea of it — was born.
Chosen site for the inclusive playground, differing slightly from the Master Plan recommendation of a parking area that's since become crucial to the operations of the Frank Hamilton School. Instead, the ideal site proved to be across from Paint Love, who offer ongoing children's programming, replacing existing but dated and substandard equipment. PHOTO: Dean Hesse for Decaturish, supportyourlocalnews.com.
Jump ahead three years and there's a buzz coursing through the air at Legacy Decatur, the nonprofit entity now responsible for ongoing operations and programming at Legacy Park. Word had come down through the city that DeKalb County’s Community Development Block Grant program had funding available and was looking for worthy recipients.
For the Legacy Decatur board, who works with the city to implement a largely unfunded wish list of park improvements, the opportunity was brimming with potential.
“We looked at several things in the master plan,” recalls executive director, Lyn Menne, “and the playground was the one that kept bubbling up because it just seemed to fit the criteria of the grant. It was something sorely needed. A diverse range of people could use it. And we didn’t have a playground in the city that was specifically designed to be accessible and inclusive.”
With the help of Greg White, Decatur's director of Active Living, the grant request was completed, including letters of support from two DeKalb County commissioners: Steve Bradshaw and Ted Terry.
To everyone’s delight, the funding was awarded. $145,000. But before the euphoria had ample time to fade, reality stepped in to expedite it. As substantial as it was, it wasn’t enough.
“When your plans are ambitious,” says Menne, “it’s not uncommon that your reach exceeds your grasp. We wanted something special. We wanted to honor the spirit of those kids at Oakhurst Elementary.”
Enter the City of Decatur. Though independently managed, Legacy Park is still a city-owned resource and subject to its purview. City commissioners make the final call on park initiatives and have discretionary authority to allocate funding as they see fit. Which in this case they did, directing an additional $114,000 of Public Facilities funds towards construction of the playground.
The path was clear to make it happen.
City of Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett, Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers, and others representing Decatur and DeKalb County commissions, cut the ribbon to officially open the new inclusive and accessible playground at Legacy Park. PHOTO: Dean Hesse for Decaturish, supportyourlocalnews.com.
A change of heart, and a change in direction
The new playground isn’t just a small, incremental change to the landscape of Legacy Park. It also represents a change of heart, and a change in direction.
“Historically, playgrounds have been designed to serve the stereotypical child,” says Menne. “But we’re so much more in tune now with how that approach leaves many kids on the sidelines. Design is design. If you’re going through that process, there’s no reason you can’t do it with a more inclusive set of criteria.”
Asked if the experience came with any disappointments, Menne is characteristically optimistic. “Only that we couldn’t do more with the money we had,” she says.
“This is just a first step in a bit of a sea change here in Decatur. For example, we know we need some fencing — some sort of enclosure — to protect the kids who’re prone to dart away. That’ll come but we’ll need to secure some additional funds to do it. Other enhancements too.”
New or additional equipment has been among Decatur’s expectations all along — not just at the Legacy Park installation but in parks throughout the city as new needs arise and existing equipment becomes dated and in need of replacement.
To wit, prior to the installation of the new playground, Legacy Decatur released a community survey seeking opinions about certain types of equipment, particularly those from the parents of special needs children.
Its primary finding was that a universally inclusive environment is difficult to achieve. One piece of equipment designed to serve one manner of disability may not be appropriate to the capabilities or interests of another. That is, whether or not a piece of equipment would ultimately be a good addition is extremely personal.
The logical takeaway is that more is better. The more diverse the inventory of equipment choices available at parks throughout the city, from movement-focused to wheelchair-friendly to sensory stimuli, the greater chance that children of all ages and capabilities will be served in some capacity.
Ultimately, that’s the goal, concludes Menne. Playgrounds not for some but for all, fulfilling a simple directive from the students at Oakhurst Elementary:
Everyone should be able to have fun.
Dustin Graham from Playground Creations, designer of the playground and self-described dreamer, gives the slide a try during a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the official opening of the new playground. PHOTO: Dean Hesse for Decaturish, supportyourlocalnews.com.
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