By Leah Call —
Six years ago, a group of parents dreamed of a park where their autistic children and non-autistic children could play together, to socialize and learn. At that time the dog park was the only place that had a perimeter fence, something needed for the safety of autistic children who tend to run when frightened by a situation.
The group’s vision for the park included much more than a fence, and that vision expanded over the years to encompass all ages and all abilities. In 2016, the All Abilities Trane Park Project committee officially formed to plan and gain support for this unique all-inclusive park.
With a third of the funds secured, the $6 million project will take shape this summer. The park project has truly become a community project with collaboration from business, education, healthcare, and city and county government. It will be a place where university students can receive hands-on training, caretakers can take adults with disabilities, and area educators can take children of all abilities.
“We’re not just building a park, we are building a community. This park doesn’t stop with the playground equipment. It is going to be alive and part of this community through that collaboration,” says Martha Tymeson, a retired teacher who spent 35 years working with children with disabilities.
Tymeson got involved with the All Abilities Trane Park Project committee three years ago when she was asked to speak to the group on the benefits of play for people with disabilities.
“Play is the ultimate way for kids to learn,” says Tymeson. “They can develop not only physical skills, but emotional and social skills.”
The five senses—taste, sight, smell, touch and sound—are the gateway to future learning for young children, she says. “There are two other senses that are equally important. Those are your vestibular and your proprioceptive senses [awareness of body movement and balance]. Those need to be developed and integrated to continue to develop cognitively, socially and physically. So if we can provide a sensory-rich environment for children to be able to practice these skills, they’ll learn to integrate them, to modulate them and grow those skills.”
The 2.9-acre park on La Crosse’s 15th and Chase streets will be the first of its kind in the region and one of just a handful in the nation. “No other park, particularly in the Midwest, meets the level of specificity that this park will offer for individuals of all ages and abilities,” says Katie Bakke, occupational therapist at Mayo Clinic Health System and vice president of the park project committee.
Zones within the park will be dedicated to promoting different sensory experiences. An early development zone will focus on motor, social and vestibular skill development. Other zones include a climb zone, sway zone, spin zone, slide zone, swing zone, theatre stage and play zone, and a nature zone.
“We designed this park to have zones of play to allow the equipment to be spread out rather than all together, enhancing what could be a very overstimulating environment to become a more enjoyable and manageable environment to explore and engage in,” notes Bakke.
The park includes resting pods where kids can go when they are feeling overstimulated, she adds. “This allows individuals to remove themselves from a zone to take a break, engage in observational play, and re-emerge into desirable play as they feel able.”
Big Undertaking, Big Impact
Park development will occur in stages. Phase I begins this summer, with completion expected by the end of summer 2019.
The committee is working with two architect firms, La Crosse-based River Architects and Damon Farber of Minneapolis. Other local service providers include marketing firm Metre Agency and Landscape Structures, which has done much of the prefabricated and custom-designed equipment. The committee is in the process of selecting playground equipment companies.
Steve Carlyon, La Crosse City Parks and Recreation director, embraces this project as a positive addition to the region. He was first approached about the park concept five years ago. “I was under the impression that all of our parks are ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant, and they are,” says Carlyon. “But this had nothing to do with accessibility; this had to do with being able to play.”
To date, the county has contributed $250,000 and the city $1.2 million. The city has committed to maintenance, repair and staffing once the park is completed.
“The whole mission, the whole vision is that all children have a right to play, and they have a right to play together,” says Carlyon. “This park will be for all abilities, from seniors who want to walk, to toddlers in a wheelchair, to kids in the neighborhood. We want everybody to enjoy the opportunity to play together.”
Want to Help Fundraise?
The La Crosse Area Autism Foundation heads the fundraising efforts with Dr. Carl Miller as fundraising chair. The group is well on its way to reaching the $6 million goal, reports project committee president Francis Formanek, thanks in large part to county and city contributions. Formanek expects another million dollars of Tax Increment Finance (TIF) funds in 2019, since the park is in a TIF district.
To raise the remaining funds, the group is making presentations to area organizations and businesses. That resulted in a $75,000 donation from Altra in January, a surprise anonymous $400,000 donation at the beginning of February, and additional support from area businesses with more expected in the first half of 2018.
One way that businesses, groups and individuals can support the project is through zone sponsorship. “Each zone is designated $250,000; if a donor of any type would want to sponsor any one of the zones, they can do that with the naming rights for that zone coming for that donation,” says Formanek.
Anyone interested in volunteering or making a financial contribution of any size should visit www.tranepark.com.