Looking around the bustling construction site of the new Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto, Olenka Villareal is amazed that what she dreamed about in 2008 is finally about to become a reality. On March 21, a playground will open in Mitchell Park that allows children of all abilities to play together, appreciate each other’s differences and build community connections that could last a lifetime.
For Olenka, the idea for Magical Bridge came from a question that is simple for most Palo Alto parents: “Where can I take my child to the park?” While her older daughter had navigated local playgrounds with ease, Olenka soon realized the lack of access for her younger child Ava, who was born with both cognitive and behavioral challenges. Her research found that none of the 34 playgrounds in Palo Alto were ‘ADA compliant,’ or accessible to people with disabilities.
“The playgrounds were impossible to use with Ava,” Olenka remembers with frustration. “Either the surfaces were sandy or filled with tan bark so her wheelchair got stuck, or there were no bucket swings for children who need support.” This was a significant issue because swinging is beneficial for children with special needs and helps develop balance, physical confidence and more.
Convinced that playground access needed to be addressed, Olenka set up a meeting with City of Palo Alto to find out what it would take to build an inclusive park where children of all abilities could play. To her surprise, the City was open to the idea and even willing to donate an underused corner of Mitchell Park. There was only one catch: Olenka would have to find all the funding herself.
While some people would walk away at this point, Olenka was undaunted. Fueled by her passion for the project, she recruited a wide circle of friends to help engage the community in a grassroots fundraising campaign, including Jill Asher, Dawn Billman, Kris Loew, Kimberly Lin, Debra Szescei and Jocelyn Alexander. The team held parties to solicit support and kids contributed too, donating bar mitzvah gifts and dropping off bags of coins earned through lemonade stands and bake sales.
And while all of this was great for spreading the word about Magical Bridge, it was an arduous way to raise money. After two years, the team had scraped together $11,000, but with a projected $3 million price tag, Olenka realized that she needed more resources- and quickly- or the park the would never get built.
Olenka again went boldly to the City of Palo Alto to ask for help, and they again responded positively, providing $300,000 in planning funds, along with staff time from Peter Jensen and Greg Betts to help move the Magical Bridge project forward. With this investment from the City, Olenka was able to secure a $1 million matching grant from the Peery Family Foundation, which encouraged donations from other Palo Alto residents, including Larry Paige of Google, Marissa Meyer of Yahoo and former Mayor Leland Levy. Once the fundraising process had momentum, it did not take long to reach the $3 million goal, with a big gift from the Enlight Foundation that closed the final gap.
“One of the parents on our team made these incredible cookies that we brought to our fundraising meetings,” Jill Asher recalls. “We called them the ‘magical cookies’ because our donors always said yes!”
While this $3 million cost may seem high, Olenka is quick to point out that the Magical Bridge will not be one of the ‘run of the mill’ playgrounds that are ubiquitous around Palo Alto. Filled with high tech features such as an audio ‘harp’ and an entrance with soothing sounds for children with sensory issues, along with swings designed for children of all abilities, the Magical Bridge aims to be a model of inclusive play that can inspire people around the country to re-imagine the concept of a community park.
Plus while other innovative parks such as Helen Diller Park in San Francisco, also cost $3 million cost, Magical Bridge is unique because almost all of the funds were raised outside of City resources.
Magical Bridge also includes a beautiful treehouse built by local artist Barbara Butler, which was donated by the Steckler Family. This all-access treehouse, one of the most prominent features of the new park, will allow children and parents in wheelchairs to experience looking out instead of always looking up.
The location of Magical Bridge is ideal for family access, situated right next to the newly remodeled Mitchell Park Library and Community Center and adjacent to Abilities United, a non profit that supports children and adults with disabilities, their families and the community.
Olenka, Jill and their team of volunteers have big plans for the opening of Magical Bridge on March 21, including performers on the mini stage outside the treehouse and gatherings by the ‘kindness wall’ made up of tiles with words of affirmation and inclusion.
“We are so appreciative to the City of Palo Alto for all their support and belief in the Magical Bridge,” says Olenka. “We are building the most innovative and inclusive playground in the country and we have already had inquiries from other cities about this park. We hope to start a national conversation about how children of all abilities can play, learn and grow together.”