Family’s Dream for Inclusive Playground Comes to Life in North Little Rock
Jerilyn Swalve-Wasson and Kenny Wasson’s dream was seemingly simple: they just wanted everyone to be able to play together.
The husband and wife duo are parents to 5-year-old Emma Wasson, and like any parent, they want their child to reap the benefits of play — social interaction, physical fitness and so much more. But for Emma, it’s a little more difficult than for a typical child. She was born with a congenital heart defect and has Turner Syndrome, meaning she is missing an entire X chromosome. So play can be a little bit more complicated.
That didn’t stop Jerilyn and Kenny.
Each year, the couple raises money for a charity in honor of Emma’s birthday rather than asking for gifts. When her fourth birthday came around, they decided that it was time to do something bigger than usual. Rather than pick out a charity right off the bat, they came up with a list of elements that were important to them for the recipient of their donation this time around.
“We wanted to make sure it was inclusive and preached love and acceptance of all people,” Jerilyn said. “We wanted it to be educational and have something to do with Emma and honor her in some way and we wanted it to be promoting physical health and fitness and just kind of taking care of one’s body. We wanted it to be local and community oriented — so there were certain things we had in mind.”
They took that criteria to the North Little Rock Department of Parks and Recreation and the stars aligned: the department said they had been wanting to build an inclusive playground and Kenny and Jerilyn decided quickly that it was the perfect answer to their fundraising desires.
“We thought that this spans all across the generations, allows all people to be able to play together and it’s so important that it’s not just like ‘oh there’s the handicap playground,’” Jerilyn said. “We wanted it to be something that the typical siblings could get out there and play with their special needs sibling and that it would be everybody together, not isolating.”
The process began in May 2016 and they helped coordinate the first concert in Burns Park since the 1980s — a major fundraising effort for the playground, which would end up costing about $250,000.
According to Jerilyn they raised about $100,000 in a year’s time and are still working to cover the remainder of the cost. They both would also like to continue to add more elements to the playground.
So what makes this playground different than any other? Jerilyn says that the the key is accessibility. The playground has sidewalks leading up to it so that wheelchairs can roll up easily rather than struggling through grass or other unpaved surfaces. The entire playground is built on rubber flooring, which continues to allow wheelchairs, walkers and more. The soft surface is also safe for kids who may fall easily.
Other unique and inclusive elements that are part of the playground in Burns Park in North Little Rock include ramps leading up to everything.
“There are a couple places that kids who want to climb can climb to get up, but every child will be able to get on the equipment through the ramps,” Jerilyn said.
The swings have high backs to support kids who may not be physically able to use other parts of the playground but can enjoy getting out of their wheelchairs.
The merry-go-round uses bucket seats with high backs for support and an element called the rock ‘n’ play has a spot for a wheelchair to fit in with seats around it for other kids to sit in.
A variety of sensory panels, including some that play music and others with elements that move around, are accessible for children who may not leave their wheelchairs.
But both Kenny and Jerilyn emphasize that this playground is not a “special needs playground” — it’s simply an inclusive playground that allows kids with special needs, parents in wheelchairs or elderly grandparents to also play and access elements safely and easily.
“We want generations to come — kids of all abilities to have a place to play,” Kenny said. “This is something that we feel strongly about and passionate about because of our daughter.”
Jerilyn said they named it the One Heart Playground “because we really wanted it to be about inclusiveness and community and how we’re all really the same.” The colors of the playground are red and blue in honor of the awareness colors for congenital heart disease.
Kenny’s goal for future additions is focused on the idea of multiple generations being at the playground: he wants adults to be up and moving as well as the kids.
“My goal is to have some exercise equipment, pullup bars, maybe an outdoor elliptical machine — something that allows the parent to not just sit there and stare at the clouds when the kid’s playing,” Kenny said.
Down the road, he’s hopeful that inclusive playgrounds will become the norm rather than the exception.
“I haven’t met anybody who isn’t affected by somebody — whether it be a parent, a friend, a neighbor — who has special needs,” Kenny said. “I think the millennial generation is trying to get back to things like community and this is a natural progression and step that brings the community together.”
What special needs does Emma have?
Emma’s case is one-of-a kind. According to Jerilyn, she’s the only person in the world they know of who is alive with her combination of Turner Syndrome and a congenital heart defect.
Some of the effects of Turner Syndrome include that she will be much smaller than other people her age, is more likely to be hearing impaired at an earlier age, is more susceptible to thyroid diseases, will need to take hormones during puberty and is more likely to have problems with her vision. Emma also has what Jerilyn calls a “leaky lymphatic system.”
“When she was first born and we were going through open heart surgeries, any traumatic event to her body causes it leak even more and would cause fluid buildup around her heart, lungs and would cause very dangerous situations for her to the point of almost losing her,” Jerilyn said.
However, Turner Syndrome is not considered a mentally disabled disorder.
There is no estimate for a life expectancy for Emma, but right now, Jerilyn says she is doing great.
“There’s really just no blueprint for the doctors to follow and say we need to do this or that,” Jerilyn said. “The main issue is just trying to learn her and figure out what to do for her specifically.”