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Brandon's Village: A Park Full of Inspiration

August 04, 2009 by Bill Strong

Last Friday, while staying with Gramma, we went to Gates Canyon Park/Brandon's Village in Calabasas, California. The park was simply AMAZING, inspiring! And, not because it is a handicap accessible park, but simply because it's a fantastic place for children to play! The design of this Universally Accessible Playground (UAP) and the environment that the ingenuity behind the UAP concept creates a safe, open place for all children to be stimulated, to be challenged, to feel the wind in their hair, to feel free, to interact. A place, well, for kids. All kids. Big and small. On feet or on wheels. To. Be. Kids. A place for everyone.

Brandon's Village is a Shane's Inspiration UAP park and the stories behind both are touching.

Shane's Inspiration was started in 1997 by Catherine Curry-Williams, Scott Williams, and Tiffany Harris. Catherine and Scott lost their son, Shane Alexander, to Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Type I only a few weeks after his birth. They realized that, as a result of Shane's SMA, he would have been in a wheelchair and, given how parks and playgrounds are commonly constructed, he would have been denied one of the fundamental rights of childhood: the right to play independently with friends and family. This inspired them to turn the tragic loss of their son into a nonproft focused on improving the lives of children with disabilities. In 1998, they opened their first UAP in Griffith Park, CA, aptly named Shane's Inspiration. Since then, they have helped raise millions of dollars to develop over 40 UAP projects throughout Southern California and as far away as Sri Lanka. Click here for a list of other Shane's Inspiration parks.

Brandon's Village is one such project. Dina Kaplan, Brandon's mom, had a passion to make the world accessible for her 12-year-old son, who has multiple physical and developmental disabilities. Dina and Brandon would frequent Shane's Inspiration in Griffith Park and it was her goal to bring a UAP to her community. She accomplished this goal for Calabasas in 2006 with the help of the Las Virgenes Special Education PTA, the city of Calabasas, the Talbert Family Foundation, the Friedman Charitable Foundation, and many other supporters.

So, what exactly does UAP mean? In the case of Brandon's Village, it means that it's almost fully accessible to everyone. But, at its core -- and this is the great part, it's just a great space for all children to play together. Most playgrounds, sandboxes, slides, swings, forts and crawl spaces are designed for kids who can run, jump, crawl, and climb. To comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), cities only need to provide access for the disabled to physically get to the playground, like a ramp, but by law they don't have to do anything to provide children with disabilities access to any of the play equipment. Shane's Inspiration has solved that problem in many creative ways with their UAPs. They use a spongy rubber surface in place of wood chips or sand and they've torn down the unneeded entrance barriers that typically surround play areas. Instead of narrow ladders and walkways, UAPs have wide, meandering ramps over bridges and in and out of every nook and cranny. This also means that parents or grandparents with disabilities can accompany their children and be part of the fun. Sandboxes are still there but, they've integrated large, accessible platforms into the sandbox and the UAPs surround the accessible platform with sand. Buckets and troughs at waist level are full of sand and shovels so everyone can enjoy digging. There are several swing areas including a very fun high-backed tandem swing, the "Harmony Swing", that allows two children to swing next to one another without one having to physically be capable of swinging; when one child swings, the other swing is set in motion (truly touching). The list goes on and on...

While at Brandon's Village, we were able to roll Gwendolyn right into the playground in her stroller and explore everything just like other children, with other children. We could roll her stroller throughout the play apparatus from top to bottom, chime all of the chimes, spin all of the tic-tac-toe toys, play with the play clock, dig in the sand, swing on the swings, sway in the crazy swaying boat, and slide on the slides. Gwendolyn felt the wind in her hair and was smiling ear to ear watching other children play and playing right alongside of them. She loved every second of it! And so did we!

We have several absolutely beautiful parks within walking distance of our house in Santa Barbara. We walk past them almost every day. One, Alameda Park, has a huge wooden castle with slides and bridges and secret passages and swings and a huge cement whale for children to play on. The park is always filled with the dizzying joy of laughing, screaming children whizzing around in circles. It's truly a special park. But, it's 100% inaccessible for us or for any handicap person, save for the ramp that allows us to get Gwendolyn's stroller right up to the outside wooden barrier that surrounds the play area. From there she can watch other children play, but there is no opportunity for her to experience any of the great things that lie beyond that barrier. And even if we could get Gwendolyn's stroller over the wooden barrier, the wood chip ground cover and the stairs and steps and small passages of the castle are completely impassable for someone with Gwendolyn's physical disabilities and wheelchair needs. It's something that has always irked us!

Now, these obstacles at Alameda Park haven't completely stopped us from figuring out how to give Gwendolyn some of these experiences: swinging on those swings, crossing that shaky rope bridge, exploring those nooks and crannies, sliding down that slide. But not the way that she should be able to experience them. And, it has taken us 21 months to find the courage and confidence to figure out the logistics to make it happen for Gwendolyn, for us. We roll Gwendolyn's stroller up to that barrier, take her off bi-pap, take her out of her stroller, and physically carry her over the barrier and through those wood chips to experience what we can get her to and through before having to run back to her stroller to suction her or to put her back on bi-pap. It's completely stressful, but given the circumstances it works, we have made it work, and Gwendolyn loves every second of it. But it's not ideal. And it's not the way it should have to be. In any community. For any child.

Having been to Brandon's Village and seeing firsthand what is possible through the ingenuity of Shane's Inspiration, I'm completely inspired. Not only to provide Gwendolyn and other children with disabilities with these fundamental opportunities to be kids, but to create this environment for all children to play and learn and experience and grow together, next to one another.

There are no UAPs in Santa Barbara, nothing even close to one, but I think it's time for that to change. Thank you Shane's Inspiration and Brandon's Village for inspiring us! What you have created is truly magical...

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