Community Connections Innovation Schools and Youth

Local teens spend a ‘magical’ summer spreading inclusive play beyond Palo Alto

Magical Bridge interns 2016. Photo credit: Magical Bridge

Everyone loves Palo Alto’s Magical Bridge playground– its innovative design and groundbreaking model for inclusive play have earned media coverage from the Huffington Post to the San Francisco Chronicle.

And as we covered in Palo Alto Pulse, the story of Magical Bridge is even more remarkable for how it was both envisioned and brought to life by Olenka Villareal, along with Kris Loew and Jill Asher, three Palo Alto parents who were passionate about building a playground where all children could play.

photo credit: Verde Design

photo credit: Verde Design

It’s no wonder that this local treasure is swarmed with children of all abilities every day, and that parents travel to Mitchell Park from all over the Bay Area to visit Magical Bridge.

And now the founders are working to spread their magic through the Magical Bridge Foundation, a new 501(c)3 organization dedicated to opening inclusive playgrounds beyond Palo Alto.

Teen interns help get Magical Bridge Foundation off the ground

They say if you want to get something done, ask a woman (that’s true, as Magical Bridge’s founders will tell you!). But here in Palo Alto, we could also say, “If you want to get something done, ask a local teen.”

Olenka Villareal, Jill Asher and Kris Loew. Photo credit: Magical Bridge

Olenka Villareal, Jill Asher and Kris Loew. Photo credit: Magical Bridge

That’s why Olenka, Jill and Kris recruited a team of teen interns to help launch their new organization this summer. Culling from an pool of over 150 applicants, they picked 12 students for the inaugural Magical Bridge summer internship program: seven from Gunn High School, three from Paly High School, one from Los Altos and one who came all the way from San Francisco.

A few of the interns were already volunteering at Magical Bridge, several of them had siblings with disabilities and the rest were chosen for their passion about inclusive play.

The teen interns, who earned $1000 for five 20-hour weeks, were tasked with three projects: 1) create videos that Magical Bridge could use for raise funds and awareness; 2) design new ideas for future Magical Bridge playgrounds and 3) implement their own projects that would support the mission of Magical Bridge.

Magical Bridge interns brainstorm new ideas for inclusive play. Photo credit: Magical Bridge

Magical Bridge interns brainstorm new ideas for inclusive play. Photo credit: Magical Bridge

Videos created by teens tell the story of Magical Bridge

Although only a few of the teens had experience with video editing, they created highly professional and compelling videos that Magical Bridge is now using on its website and for fundraising. Their video introducing the Magical Bridge Foundation has already helped bring in key funding for expansion to new cities this fall.

“We could have paid a company to make these videos for Magical Bridge,” said Jill Asher. “But we wanted the kids to do real work that would be meaningful to the organization, and what they created will have a high impact on our fundraising and communications.”

photo by Palo Alto Pulse

photo by Palo Alto Pulse

In addition, three of the interns- who discovered this summer that they all had a sister with a disability- created an special video called, “My Sister Matters,” for their internship project. With this unique experience in common, they set out to illustrate not only the challenges, but more importantly, the gifts of having a sibling with special needs (view this moving video here).

As Angelica, one of the creators of “My Sister Matters,” explained: “Making the video helped me appreciate my Mom in new ways. I used to think she didn’t care about me and my brother as much because she is always taking care of my sister. Now I see that she loves us all, but my sister just needs more attention.”

Teens develop new empathy for people with special needs

“I’ll never look at a playground the same way again,” remarked Carolyn, one of the interns. “We  visited many playgrounds with a child in a wheelchair and watched as she got stuck in the tan bark and uneven surfaces. I never realized what a person with disabilities goes through before Magical Bridge.”

teens envision new playground designs. Photo by Palo Alto Pulse.

teens envision new playground designs. Photo by Palo Alto Pulse.

Drawing on their new empathy, the teen interns learned to use ‘design thinking’ at local product design firm IDEO to envision new play structures that could be created at future Magical Bridge playgrounds.

Kaitlin, a student at Gunn HS, came away from the internship inspired to replicate the Best Buddies program at Paly for students at her high school, which aims to foster friendships between teens with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Paly Best Buddies Club was voted “outstanding high school chapter of the year” in 2014.

And explore new careers in civic engagement and advocacy

Another bonus of the internship? A chance to learn about professions outside of the jobs in engineering and tech that are so common in Palo Alto.

“The internship was particularly worthwhile for the combination of work experience and exposure to different jobs,” said Keishi. “I could see that it’s possible to make money in a job that makes a difference, whether advocating for people with special needs, running a nonprofit or working in city government.”

Magical Bridge Foundation is just getting started…

Olenka and her team are excited about what is ahead for the Magical Bridge Foundation as they start to partner with new cities to envision inclusive spaces for play, providing design leadership, fundraising support and media outreach to bring support and exposure to these local efforts.

photo by Palo Alto Pulse

photo by Palo Alto Pulse

The teen interns are ready to go out in the world as ambassadors for Magical Bridge.

“They are our feet on the ground as we grow,” explained Jill Asher. “We are thrilled that these talented teens will be the new generation of advocates for people with special needs, and for places where children of all abilities can come together.”

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About the author

Victoria Thorp

Victoria Thorp

Victoria is the founder and editor of Palo Alto Pulse and has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. Victoria's diverse professional background includes working as the editor of , as a senior writer for KIPP and Teach for America, and as a radio producer for City Visions on KALW (91.7FM San Francisco). She is a graduate of Leadership Palo Alto and a member of the Palo Alto Partners in Education Advisory Board.

She has a BA in English from Tufts University and Masters in Education and Secondary Teaching Credential in English from UCLA.