Easton Gonzalez shouts “incoming.” In a matter of seconds, the 6-year-old appears at the bottom of the red slide.
“I can go without a grown-up,” he says excitedly.
For most kids his age, the ability to go down a slide at a playground is something taken for granted. But for Easton, who has spina bifida, it meant taking a leap of faith.
“I overcome my fears because I used to not like slides — and now I do,” Easton says as he takes a break from playing at the Bright Outlook Pavilion at G.T. Bray Park in Bradenton. “I overcame my fears and now I’m not scared of slides.”
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Easton, who has no use of his legs from his knees down, pushes his wheelchair up the playground’s ramp before he gets out and crawls to the red slide. Once he reaches the bottom of the slide, Easton wants to do it again. so he crawls over to a beige climbing slide, climbs up and gets ready to go down the red slide again.
This time when Easton reaches the bottom of the slide, he has a big smile on his face.
I love parks ’cause I get to spend time with my friends here, and I get to play and I get to roll around in my chair and go on swings.
Easton Gonzalez, 6
“I like doing it,” he says. “I love parks ’cause I get to spend time with my friends here, and I get to play and I get to roll around in my chair and go on swings.”
Making playgrounds accessible
While Easton is able to do some activities at the playground, including the swings, he wishes he could do more.
“Like wheel around more, go do some things that other people can do but not me,” he said.
So Easton’s mom, Jennifer Griffith, is championing efforts to make Manatee County’s playgrounds accessible. What thrills Easton the most about that? He could play more with his friends, including his cousin, Nathan.
“I’d get to wheel around with my friends that come to the park like my cousin,” Easton said. “He’s not in a wheelchair, but he’s still my friend even though he’s not in a wheelchair and he does everything I do.”
Easton’s dream may become a reality soon as Manatee County’s seven Rotary Clubs have banded together to form Rotary’s Suncoast Playground Projects Inc. Their mission? To build three barrier-free inclusive playgrounds in Manatee County — one at G.T. Bray Park, one at Tom Bennett Park and the third at Buffalo Creek Park.
The playgrounds would be themed, with the one at G.T. Bray Park being sea life, the one at Tom Bennett Park being ranch life and the one at Buffalo Creek Park being fossils.
“I just think it’s important — not only for my son, but for other children — to be exposed to children of all different abilities, to be able to play side by side, to learn how to get along with people that are different than them, to develop friendships and just for all children of all abilities to go have fun,” Jennifer Griffith said.
Griffith knows her son won’t be the only child excited about the new playgrounds. In fact, at Blake Hospital where Easton goes to therapy, he’s joined by “oodles and oodles of children” who need accessible playgrounds.
“Just talking to the parents that have children that are differently abled, they tell me what a huge need that there is,” she said. “They are so excited once I start talking about this project, they just light up and they are like ‘Oh my gosh, there is going to be a playground I can take my child to.’”
Accessible playgrounds are lacking in Manatee County, Griffith said.
“There’s nothing around here that meets the criteria or can even compare to some of the other playgrounds that are in counties that have the right structures, the right ground covering, the right access for children of all abilities whether it’s a wheelchair, walker, crutches and those that have sensory issues,” she said. “We are going to incorporate all kinds of components into the playgrounds so that we are incorporating all children of all abilities.”
Rotaries, county collaborate on $1.8M project
Within the next month, Rotary officials are hoping to receive nonprofit status for Suncoast Playground Projects Inc. Then the fundraising will begin to make the three playgrounds a reality. With each playground costing around $500,000, the initial cost estimate for the project is $1.8 million.
“We’ve got to start a major fundraising campaign,” said Judy Bennett, a Manatee Riverside Rotary member. “We are going to be looking for some major gifts. There will be naming opportunities at each of the playgrounds.”
On Tuesday, Rotary’s Suncoast Playground Projects and county officials will present the proposed partnership to the Manatee County Commission. As part of the $1.8 million project, the county will provide some funding, the property location and, upon construction, the donated playground will be maintained by the county, according to agenda materials.
“We are going to use the collaboration to really expand and raise the bar with all-inclusive,” said Danny Hopkins, the county’s recreation division manager.
In addition to the “all-inclusive” playgrounds for children, Hopkins said they are also going to be looking at multi-generational opportunities.
“We want families to be able to go there,” he said. “We want the activities to be all-inclusive. We are really going to be thoughtful on the final design so adults, mentally challenged and physically challenged can access the area.”
While there are ADA-compliant playgrounds in Manatee County, the requirements are not the “most exciting,” Hopkins said.
“We want to both work on raising the standards for our community,” he said. “We do want to provide this service for that special population. ...We are going to work together to develop plans and eventually have those three facilities completed. The goal is to have these three all-inclusive health and wellness areas in the county parks.”
The playground project is the first time in at least 20 years where all seven Manatee County Rotary Clubs are working together on a project, according to Bennett.
“It didn’t take a lot of convincing, because the need was so apparent when we saw a video that Jennifer had done about Easton and how hard it was for him to play with his cousin,” she said. “The need just jumped out at us and it touched our hearts.”
With the county commission’s OK to proceed, Hopkins said they hope to deliver the community all three playgrounds.
“I just think that the overall concept is an amazing one,” Hopkins said. “We are extremely happy and proud to be associated with Rotary Club, and we look forward to working with them.”