The other day my daughter-in-law, Effie Parks, took her two kids to Luther Burbank Park. My 5-year-old grandson Ford has a rare genetic disorder and uses a wheelchair. My granddaughter Esme is a typical 2-year-old, who runs everywhere.
“They both love going to the playground,” Effie wrote on her “Once Upon A Gene” Facebook page. “I’ve taken them alone several times but it’s not ideal in the slightest.” The park has “a lot of problems,” she noted, including drop-offs into woodchips (which don’t work for wheelchairs), and a big hole in the middle where a merry-go-round used to be.
While pushing Esme on a swing, Effie kept a close eye on Ford, who was sitting in his wheelchair watching other kids play on the Zipline. “I’m sick to my stomach and aching inside,” she wrote. On a previous visit, Ford had nearly rolled down a steep exit ramp before she grabbed his wheelchair.
Until Ford was born and diagnosed with CTNNB1 Syndrome, I never really thought about how difficult and challenging park visits are for parents of special-needs children. But I’ve learned a lot in the last few years. The biggest lesson is that ALL parks and playgrounds should be fully accessible and truly inclusive – not just for kids or others in wheelchairs, but for anyone with mobility issues, including aging grandparents like me. Unfortunately, Mercer Island has NO such parks – but that’s about to change.
Construction will begin soon on the new Mercerdale “Train Park” Playground, which will be state-of-the-art in terms of accessibility and inclusivity. The City Council, to its great credit, approved the renovation plan by a series of 7-0 votes on May 18. This was not a foregone conclusion.
Just last January, when city officials decided to close Mercerdale playground, such considerations were not on their agenda. The 20-plus-year-old site had severe drainage problems due to deteriorating wood chips, plus delamination and metal fatigue on some of the equipment. The area was fenced off and the old equipment demolished except for a few swings.
The city’s original plan was simply to replace everything with similar structures – a “like for like” replacement. That’s when an extraordinary coalition of parents, grandparents, concerned citizens and playground experts came together to advocate for a fully accessible and truly inclusive approach. A group of Islanders including Effie Parks, my wife Mariana Parks, Jill Hawkins (who has two kids with disabilities), and my sister-in-law Teresa Hunt met in our living room and decided to lobby the city. We first met with City Council member Jake Jacobson, liaison to the Parks and Recreation Commission, who fully supported our effort and encouraged us to contact other council members.
Meanwhile, the Mercer Island Preschool Association (MIPA) was advocating for the very same thing. MIPA has a long history of partnering with the City to provide input and funding towards playground remodels. MIPA was one of the original sponsors of Train Park when it was first built. Their name and seal is on the decorative concrete entryway, and they helped raise funds by having donors purchase memorial bricks (which will remain in place). This time around, MIPA, led by Co-Presidents Laura Schaps and Lesley Malakoti, pledged to advocate for an inclusive playground – one where children of all ages and all abilities would gather to play together. Given the intended “like for like” replacement, limited budget and quick turn-around, MIPA knew this would be a challenge. When Ashley Hay, MIPA VP of Advocacy, reached out to City Council members to discuss Mercerdale playground, Councilmember Jacobson connected these two groups – unbeknownst to each other but both working towards the same goal – and a partnership was formed.
Some coalition members met for the first time in person on “Rare Disease Day,” when we organized a “Show Your Stripes” event at the I-90 Lid park. More than 100 people showed up wearing zebra-striped face masks and clothing. The zebra is the symbol of the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). Our goal was to focus attention on the more than 7,000 rare disorders that exist, and help draw awareness to the need for a fully accessible and truly inclusive playground on Mercer Island.
City staff including City Manager Jessi Bon, Paul West, Jason Kintner, Ryan Daly and others stepped up to the challenge. They organized a Feb. 8 public Zoom meeting that included an online opinion survey. The Parks and Recreation Commission, especially Jodi McCarthy, invited more public comments in an April 1 Zoom meeting. The city held another online meeting on April 14, and the commission met again on May 6 to discuss options. MIPA gathered feedback from its members and provided this feedback to the City. Other individual citizens including Daniel Thompson and Meg Lippert, both with a long history of advocacy for parks, weighed in with additional suggested improvements. Countless phone calls, emails and discussions ensued. A couple of us even met at the Roanoke to get better acquainted.
All of this effort led to a totally new and innovative design plan for Mercerdale playground. Our concerns about surface, colors, ramps, height, signage, variety, fencing, etc. were heard and addressed. Needs of those with sensory disabilities were considered as well. After many months of planning, designs have been drafted for Mercer Island’s first fully accessible, inclusive playground.
The City’s goal is to complete the renovation by late summer. MIPA will contribute $20,000 towards this new playground and Rotary Club of Mercer Island has pledged $5,000 towards the purchase of inclusive playground equipment. MIPA is coordinating additional donations. Contributions at any level are welcome, with a keepsake memento for every donation of $250 and above. Major donors will be recognized on playground signage and there are a limited number of metal benches with custom plaques available. Please contact MIPA for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
When construction actually begins, our coalition is planning a “ground-breaking” event. We want as many people as possible to show up – including those in wheelchairs or using walkers or canes — to thank the city of Mercer Island’s elected officials and professional staff for responding so fully to citizen concerns. This will be a genuinely multi-generational facility for those of all ages and abilities.
When the new playground reopens, we will have another “walk and roll” celebration. My grandson Ford and others with any disabilities — plus parents, grandparents, relatives and friends – will express our deep gratitude. This is how local grassroots democracy is supposed to work.
John Hamer is a retired editorial writer and columnist for The Seattle Times. He and his wife have four grandchildren.