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Palo Alto's Magical Bridge Playground serves as model for other cities

Palo Alto Daily News - 8/11/2017

Aug. 11--Seven-year-old Kenzie Hamed has Williams Syndrome, a rare disorder that has her missing 24 genes, including one that helps her calculate depth.

She can run and jump, but has significant developmental delays and unique sensory needs. For these reasons and more, most playgrounds are scary to her.

But the Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto is different.

Because the playground is an all-inclusive park, Kenzie can play with her twin brother Adam, who does not have the genetic disorder, said Doaa Hamed, the twins' mom.

"If most children think Disneyland is their dream place, this is it for Kenzie," Hamed said. "We don't have to shadow her step-by-step here. At Magical Bridge she is safe and she is exploring."

Still, it's a toll for the Hameds, who live in Los Gatos and travel to the park, the only Magical Bridge Playground in the county.

"We love the playground and we can't imagine our weekends without it," Hamed said. "If it were up to me, I would convert every park into an all-inclusive park. It would be a dream come true if there were Magical playgrounds throughout the Bay Area."

Santa Clara County officials are calling on cities to create such playgrounds.

Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors approved a plan, introduced by Supervisor Joe Simitian, that set aside $10 million in grants to build all-inclusive playgrounds in each of the county's five districts.

Half of that amount comes from the 2012 Measure A reserve and half from other county general fund sources, according to Simitian's office.

Applications for the grant, available online, are due Oct. 18. A workshop for prospective applicants is scheduled for 10 a.m.Aug. 17 at the County of Santa Clara Parks & Recreation Department, Administration Building, 298 Garden Hill Drive in Los Gatos.

Simitian said he hopes the grants will help cities, schools and nonprofits build playgrounds designed to address the needs of people with autism, sensory challenges, visual and audio impairment, and cognitive, developmental and physical disabilities.

To say all-inclusive parks such as the Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto and the Rotary PlayGarden in San Jose have been successes would be an understatement, Simitian added.

"Families both with and without disabilities drive for miles to experience these parks," Simitian said. "This will give them the same opportunities in the communities where they live."

Palo Alto resident Olenka Villarreal labored for years to build a playground adults and children, including her developmentally disabled daughter Ava, could enjoy regardless of their ability.

Villarreal imagined a playground where she, as an adult, could interact with her daughter, who is 14 but developmentally not more than 1. A playground where a parent in a wheelchair can easily transfer himself into a disc swing to sit beside his child.

All-inclusive parks help those with disabilities, especially children, from falling further and further behind simply because they don't have a space that helps them experience important developmental milestones, such as being able to climb or swing, Villarreal said.

"The remarkable thing is we've created something innovative and it really shouldn't be," Villarreal said. "It should be the norm. One in every five people who come through a playground will have some form of a disability, whether it's obvious or not obvious. We know many people are being left out."

Villarreal, co-founder of the Palo Alto-based Magical Bridge Foundation, raised $4 million, mainly from private donations, to make Magical Bridge in Palo Alto a reality. The playground, which opened in April 2015, sees an estimated 25,000 visitors a month, with more than 60 percent of them from outside Palo Alto, according to Villarreal.

Villarreal has since turned her attention to bringing Magical Bridge to other local cities and, she hopes, to other states by 2018.

The nonprofit will break ground this October on its second Magical Bridge project, in Redwood City at Red Morton Park, 1120 Roosevelt Ave.

So far, Magical Bridge has agreements with cities including Sunnyvale and Morgan Hill to provide help in applying for the grant and fundraising. Mountain View also has set aside money for an all-inclusive park.

According to Sunnyvale Mayor Glenn Hendricks, Sunnyvale has allocated $1.8 million and an acre of park space for an all-inclusive playground at Fair Oaks Park, which is being redesigned.

"As we look down the road, I'd like to have all-inclusive features in all of our parks," Hendricks said. "We should reach a point where parks like this are not a big deal because it has become the natural way a park would be built."

Magical Bridge's concept caught the eye of Heather Farrer, who was born in Palo Alto and resides in Louisville. She's hopeful she can bring something like Magical Bridge back to Kentucky and is visiting Palo Alto this week to learn about the project.

Farrer, founder of The Wheelhouse Project, said the playground's thoughtful design for those of all ages, sizes and abilities will help her create a space that improves the health of the Smoketown community, an area limited in resources.

"We want to restore a sense of safety and bring people together to an area, green space, where they can play and gather and work to improve the neighborhood," Farrer said. "A fun, imaginative place for kids who grew up in multidimensional poverty. Magical Bridge solves some of these problems."

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(c)2017 the Palo Alto Daily News (Menlo Park, Calif.)

Visit the Palo Alto Daily News (Menlo Park, Calif.) at www.paloaltodailynews.com

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