Parents of a special needs daughter and the North Little Rock Department of Parks and Recreation are working together to create an attraction that will be the first of its kind in the city: a playground designed specifically for those with special needs.

Jerilyn Swalve-Wasson and her husband Kenny Wasson celebrate their daughter Emma’s birthday each year by asking for donations to a charity rather than gifts. This year, Emma, who has a genetic disorder known as Turner Syndrome, turned four and they wanted to do something extra special.

So, they approached the North Little Rock Department of Parks and Recreation with their idea to raise money for a custom-designed special needs playground. According to Jerilyn, the city was already considering a project like this so the partnership was perfect.

“We realized we were trying to accomplish the same thing — build something for the community to get behind that people of all disabilities could be a part of — and it’s all about health and physical fitness,” said Jerilyn.

The key aspect of the park will be the ground: smooth, rubbery flooring rather than the typical woodchips or grass. This will make the park wheelchair accessible.

The design of the park hasn’t been finalized, but Jerilyn said they have ideas for some of the elements they’d like to include such as high-back swings that provide support, sensory boards and tables and instrument-type equipment that wheelchairs could roll up to. They’ll also keep in mind things like using ramps rather than stairs.  

Terry Hartwick, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said that they hope to start construction on the playground this fall and have part of it ready for use by the spring. However, the construction could move slowly with elements of the park added on as more money is raised.

"We don’t have anything at our parks in the city that can service special needs," Hartwick said. "It’s tough for them to entertain their kids and I think this is important."

Jerrilyn emphasized that they want the park to appeal to and be usable for people with a wide range of disabilities, whether those are physical, developmental, intellectual or sensory. 

“We are going to take this process slowly because we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing and doing the best possible thing we can do,” Jerrilyn said.

She also said that kids who do not have special needs such as friends and siblings will be encouraged to play at the playground as well.

"The more children can play with other children, it will create a better world — a more educational and tolerant world," Jerilyn said.

The park will cost well over $100,000, with a large portion of that cost being the flooring alone. Each element of the park will likely cost from $7,000-$10,000.

In order to cover costs, the Wassons and parks department are planning on holding fundraisers. The first one, a country concert at the river, raised around $20,000, and another event is in the works for October. For details, check on the North Little Rock Department of Parks and Recreation Facebook page.

The park will be located off of Funland Drive in North Little Rock, adjacent to the Burns Park Funland Amusement Park.

To donate to the fundraising campaign, mail a check to the North Little Rock Department of Parks and Recreation and note Attn: Jaime Pettit.