WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
Nancy Griffith pulled up to the G.T. Bray playground three years ago with her two grandsons Easton and Nathan – born just six weeks apart and who share a love for all things play – and felt a sense of deflation filter through her body like a party balloon sinking with a slow leak. Apprehension replaced joy as she scanned the playground stretched out before her complete with railroad ties, AstroTurf, and traditional play equipment.
“I realized the playground was good for one grandson who is a climber, a runner, a risk-taker, but not good for the other one,” said Griffith, who revealed Easton was born with spina bifida and embraces and rolls through life in a wheelchair. His special need sometimes creates a barrier for him to immerse himself with other kids on playgrounds.
Determined to seek out a space in Manatee County where her best buddy grandsons could play together, Griffith reached out to Parks and Recreation but found a limited list of options.
“They told me there was a special swing in Duette, a swing at Orange Ridge Bullock, and a swing at Tom Bennett Park, but that was it,” said Griffith with a sigh. “They were aware of the need but said there was no funding.”
Griffith, alongside her daughter Jennifer Crofoot and the Rotary Clubs of Manatee County, hopes to change this. In a grassroots, committed, and organized effort to re-shape the footprint of Manatee County playgrounds, the Rotary Clubs, formed Rotary’s Suncoast Playground Project, Inc., a group of community volunteers dedicated to raising to $600,000 for each of the three playground locations through their capital campaign. They are striving to purchase fully accessible play equipment so children with all abilities can enjoy parks alongside their families.
“This is what we want to stress the most, families being able to play together,” said Crofoot, leaning forward with eyes wide and sparkling. “All-inclusive means for all children. So often, when a family has a child with special needs, they have to look for activities for that child. With our playground design, siblings and friends, no matter their abilities, can play together, which is essential for socialization and awareness.”
From a hallway at Bradenton Christian School peppered with artwork, nine-year-old Easton showed off his new wheelchair. He can rattle off an endless list of car facts, has a weakness for chicken fries, M&Ms, and idolizes Aaron “Wheels” Fotheringham, a powerhouse superstar with the wheelchair skateboarding organization WCMX.
Easton proudly smiled front and center at the Cox Chevrolet 2020 unveiling of the new Corvette, and he rolls so fast his school, which recently built a special sidewalk just so he could reach the basketball court, has hung signs reading “Slow Speed” and “Caution Bump.”
“He’s all boy,” said Crofoot. “He knows he’s different, but he doesn’t know he’s different. He’s just a cool kid and makes everyone around him want a wheelchair. His school has embraced him, and I don’t ever have to worry about him being bullied because these kids and teachers have his back.”
While Easton thrives in a community of support, Crofoot said he does express frustration when he can’t just get out and play on his own at parks.
“I know he doesn’t want me to have to carry him all the time to the equipment,” said Crofoot, who originally presented the idea of all-inclusive playgrounds to the Rotary Club.
In a public-private relationship, the Rotary Clubs and Manatee County have united to form a plan, mapping out three all-inclusive playgrounds beginning with G.T. Bray and then moving on to Tom Bennett Park and Buffalo Creek Park. Donating the land, retrofitting the space, and absorbing future maintenance costs.
Manatee County also plans to contribute up to $250,000 to round out play equipment offerings for all ages to complete the county park system’s first fully accessible play space for people of all abilities to play and exercise together.
“Play is an essential part of life,” said County Commissioner Carol Whitmore. “Everyone loves to play babies, children, adults, and senior citizens. What could be better than creating a space where everyone can play together? As County Commissioner for District 6-At Large, I am proud to join my County Commission colleagues in partnering with local Rotary Clubs.”
While Manatee County fully supports creating all-inclusive playgrounds, Crofoot shares the backbone of the project lies with the Rotary Club Members who have traveled as far as Lakeland to view existing state-of-the-art, all-inclusive playgrounds and spread awareness. After presenting her idea to the Rotary Club of Bradenton, every club in the county jumped on board.
“Rotary Clubs are committed to youth development,” said Tom Norton, chairman of the Rotary playground project and is a third-generation Rotarian. “Rotarians are community leaders and people of action who saw a need to create better outdoor spaces for children of all abilities to play together. This is a natural fit.”
In the three years since this idea inception, Crofoot and the Rotary Clubs have worked tirelessly consulting with physical therapists, occupational therapists, and other experts to design a playground children with special needs can enjoy.
According to the playground project’s mission, “When a child uses a wheelchair or crutches, he or she can’t just climb up to the slide or get onto a swing. Many of our local playgrounds have a mulch surface, which is a barrier for a child using a wheelchair. Our local governments try hard to create play spaces for all children, but the equipment is costly, and funds are limited.”
Funding is the only barrier still holding back construction of the first playground because design, location, and support are already cheering from the sidelines. About one-third of the way to breaking ground, the Rotary Club continues to reach out into the community for help, including holding their annual Rotary’s Comedy Night to raise money for the playground. This year, the club brought in a keynote speaker and “sit-down” comedian Brett Leake who has muscular dystrophy and shares comedy from his wheelchair.
“I want you to know what a great idea that playground is,” Leake said. “That’s a super idea, and I am thrilled you are doing it. I was lucky because where I grew up, when I was a child, I lived in a house, and the house was not unusual. We had a yard in the back, and kids near me all lived in apartments, so if they wanted to play, they had to come to my yard. And for me and my brother, two young boys who were beginning to know they were growing up with a disability, people playing with us helped us because learning play together made it much easier for us to learn other people’s strengths and weaknesses, how to get along with other people, and how to be productive members of society. It’s a great idea!”
Along with her colleagues, Whitmore has watched the community pull together to contribute to the playground project. She said: “They have picked up several large donations recently, including a substantial contribution from Neal Communities, and have seemed to gain quite a bit of momentum in the past few months.”
In a chance meeting a couple of years ago at Riverwalk playground in Bradenton, Mike Storey, president of Neal Communities, and his wife and granddaughter, Mila, met Crofoot and Easton for the first time. An instant friendship bloomed with the two kids as they laughed and played together with Easton following Mila as best he could.
“Jennifer tries to have Easton live as normal of a life as possible,” Storey said. “He is very adaptive, but not everything is adaptable. We tend to meet minimum ADA requirements, but that doesn’t mean everything is always accessible.”
Recalling a memory of a disabled childhood classmate, Storey shared how his friend faced barriers in the ability to play with others.
“In Elementary school, I had a classmate – a boy – who was in a wheelchair, and I remember watching and seeing how he struggled to stay included the whole time on the playground. This was in the 70s, and he could not play with the other children. I just remember how this impacted his spirit.”
Storey immediately connected to the playground mission. He and his wife personally donated a special swing alongside a $90,000 donation from Neal Communities.
“We are making progress, and we continue to work for more donations,” Crofoot said. “We won’t stop. We are committed even if it takes us years. Easton may be too old to want to play on a playground by the time it is built, but that doesn’t mean countless other families won’t benefit.”
Eyes wide with amazement, Griffith feels joy swell inside her, watching the community band together to support an idea that rooted after her trip to the playground.
“The heart of this whole project beats strongly with the Rotary Clubs,” she said. “The credit goes to the Rotarians. I know we can do this. The awareness has spread, and I even get notes from friends living in other states excited to say to me, ‘Guess what we just built?'”