Imagine a community where every child, every adult, and every family could come together to play, no matter their disabilities or impairments.
Imagine a community where a child in a wheelchair whose closest interaction with a playground has been riding around the outskirts on the sidewalk and watching other children play, can now access an entire play structure.
Imagine a community where a single mother with a stroller and a small child can still access a playground and still be able to follow her child wherever they want to go (even all the way up to the slide).
Imagine a community where a child with sensory sensitivities can play on the playground with shade provided and spaces in the playground that will allow them to step away by themselves to play if they become overstimulated.
Imagine a community where a child with a visual impairment can still go and play at a playground because it has guides for him/her to use to access it.
Imagine a community with swings, zip lines, musical instruments, and a fully accessible play structure where anyone and everyone is welcome to play and come together. That is the community that Clarksville, Arkansas is building.
How Did Clarksville Do This?
In 2019, one of the initial meetings about the inclusive playground in Clarksville, AR included Mayor David Rieder, Lara Powers, Clarksville School District’s Special Education Supervisor, Amanda Demoret, a teacher at Oark Elementary School, and Amy Oatis, a professor at the University of the Ozarks and a mom of a child with significant needs.
In sharing about that day, Mayor Rieder said, “In that meeting, the four of us had a discussion on what it means to truly be inclusive. Something happened in that meeting. You know, I’ve asked this question before, but: what does it take to change the essence of someone’s soul? Sometimes it’s a general conversation about seeing the world through other people’s eyes when we go about our lives daily and we don’t see it that way and we don’t notice certain things until we know somebody that has gone through that. But, that day at that meeting, those four ladies changed my life…and I have seen the world totally different since that day. After that meeting, we took off with a dream, we re-wrote the grant three times (they say the third time’s a charm), we took it to the state, got approved by the state and we got a grant.”
Since the beginning, the inclusive playground has been envisioned as a safe space not only for families, children, and adults alike to come together and play but also for anyone in the surrounding areas that is able to travel to Clarksville as well.
This unique group of individuals came together and established that “every family and every child needs a place to go to and feel like they belong,” according to Amy.
After that initial meeting commenced, the search for both funding and a plan of action began (and it was not always an easy process).
Everyone involved in the process of the inclusive playground (along with the group in the initial meeting) includes the following: Clarksville City Council, Darian Piper, Jackie Bateman, Jessica Gunn, Joy Wilson, Matt Bewley, Max Hilgendorf, Stacy Hurst, Steven Houserman, Wynette Holland, and Verla Clark.
Once the need for an inclusive playground in the community had been established, some searching and time proposed the opportunity to apply for the Family Fun Park Grant. After that grant was discovered, it took three different rewritings for it to be approved by the state. Before Clarksville was approved for the grant, though, Mayor Rieder wanted to ensure the funds could be allocated to be able to build the inclusive playground, no matter what. There was the Vision 21 Bond Refinance that would allow for the city to be given a lump sum of money that would go towards building the inclusive playground, the bike trails at Lake Ludwig, the baseball/softball complex, and the renovation of the soccer fields. Mayor Rieder knocked on 700+ doors, printed out flyers, and personally financed his own Facebook ads, all to ensure that the Clarksville community would understand the importance of this bond refinance (for no increase in taxes), and would allow for it to pass. Ironically, once the bond was approved for refinancing, the City of Clarksville was approved for the Family Fun Park Grant as well.
The process of finding funding for the inclusive playground took time, persistence, and patience, but that part of the process alone brought so many people in the community together consistently with trial and error. The behind-the-scenes actions to lead the City of Clarksville to the groundbreaking and eventually the ribbon cutting to the inclusive playground initiated an act of camaraderie and community that is truly incredible.
The ribbon cutting for the inclusive playground was hosted on September 10th, 2022. At the ribbon cutting, Mayor Rieder, along with several other guest speakers, shared the creation story of this playground, everyone that was involved in the creation of the playground was recognized, stories were shared, and Mary Sears and Tracy Reeves were remembered and honored in a ceremony that revealed their plaques that will remain in the front of the playground.
Mary Sears was an employee at Forrester-Davis Development Center for 26 years, and Tracy Reeves was the first client to begin at Forrester-Davis in August of 1971.
Mary Sears was also very involved in the Special Olympics as a coach both at the state and the world levels. She was the Coach of the Year in Arkansas for the Special Olympics, and she was also a coach on the International Special Olympic USA Coaching Team. After retiring from the center, Mary continued to be involved with Forrester-Davis from serving on the board to sticking around to answer questions and guide those that were walking in her footsteps.
Joy Wilson, the Director at Forrester-Davis Development Center said, “Mary had the heart of a lion for disabled children and adults. And, of course, you couldn’t think about Mary without thinking about Tracy as well.”
Tracy Reeves started attending Forrester-Davis Development Center when he was 10 years old, worked for the center, and retired at the age of 52 in June 2013. Tracy was very involved in the Special Olympics as an athlete, leaving behind his legacy of 51 gold medals, 10 silver medals, and 8 bronze medals.
Joy shared, “Tracy started in the Special Olympics in April of 1972. He went to the state games in May and won a bronze medal in the 50-yard dash. After that, he continued in the Special Olympics until May 2013. In 1991 he won a gold medal in tennis skills at Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota in the International Games. In 1995 he won a gold medal in Bocce at New Haven, Connecticut in the International Games.”
It is evident that both Mary Sears and Tracy Reeves left behind an unbelievable legacy that will now live on forever through the Sears/Reeves Inclusive Playground.
What Makes a Playground Inclusive?
No matter where you go or what city you live in, there is always a portion of the population that are not able to go to a playground because of a mental or physical disability. That portion of the population is then limited, and an inclusive playground aims to remove those limits. The inclusive playground is an additional structure at Cline Park that is a completely inclusive play space. The play space includes wider ramps and walkways equipped for those in a wheelchair, those using a walker, or even those pushing a stroller. In addition to that, the play space is also made entirely of plastic, has a ground installation that makes it wheelchair accessible but also soft in case someone were to fall, and has canopied areas to provide shade for those sensitive to light/heat/etc. There are even some areas that are set apart from the main play structure for those with sensory issues and/or anxiety so that they can separate themselves from the stimulus, while still being able to enjoy the playground.
The playground is also equipped with a zipline that can hold an adult or a child with a harness, a variety of swings, slides, structures to climb on or under, and the list goes on. A fence also surrounds the playground with a gate to prevent children or adults that may become overstimulated and/or overwhelmed and try to run away.
Mayor Rieder expressed that when he was elected as mayor, he had a conversation with Verla Clark at City Hall. He said, “We talked about what our community needs and she brought up an inclusive playground, and I said, ‘what’s that?’ I didn’t know what an inclusive playground was at the time and I didn’t know that there was a difference between an ADA-compliant playground and one that was inclusive.”
From that moment on, Mayor Rieder, along with many others, truly learned about the meaning of an inclusive playground.
Establishing a playground as “inclusive” means that it truly must be inclusive to anyone and everyone that wishes to use the playground. The City of Clarksville collaborated with so many different individuals that helped ensure the inclusivity of this playground. With too many details that were incorporated in this structure to count, the description above is merely just that: a description. To truly understand the impact and the importance of this structure and this playground, you have to see it for yourself.
Why Does an Inclusive Playground Make Such a Big Impact?
Mayor Rieder said, “This playground was meant to be here and I believe that with all of my heart.”
Amy Oatis said, “Being able to play together is what makes a foundation for a good community.”
Pastor Jon Hoffman said, “This playground is the result of a conscious decision, but it’s also a compassionate decision.”
Senator Gary Stubblefield said, “You can tell a lot about a community by how they take care of their most vulnerable citizens.”
Many others described the inclusive playground as “life-changing,” “inspirational,” “joyful,” “truly inclusive,” “empathetic,” and the list goes on.
So many different individuals have commented on, shared stories about, and have praised the Sears/Reeves Inclusive Playground, but the most common word used in all of this has been “impact” and the impact that this playground will have on Clarksville as a city, Johnson County as a whole, and even surrounding communities as well.
As Amy mentioned, “The inclusive playground puts Clarksville on a level of much larger communities.”
The Sears/Reeves Inclusive Playground will be one of 6 inclusive playgrounds in Arkansas with 2 in North Little Rock, 1 in Jonesboro, 1 in Springdale, and 1 in Bentonville (with a 7th inclusive playground in progress in Fort Smith). With Clarksville being a much smaller community than the ones previously mentioned, the Reeves/Sears Inclusive Playground really opens up Clarksville to other smaller communities in the surrounding areas as well. No matter how big or how small a community may be, though, anyone and everyone deserves to have a safe space to come and play.
After the speeches were presented at the ribbon cutting, the ceremony shifted to the gate of the playground, the ribbon was cut signifying that the Sears/Reeves Inclusive Playground was open, and all of the kids present were able to enter the playground and play–all together. That specific moment not only represented how the community of Clarksville is changing and being impacted, but it also represented the people that were changed and impacted as well.
For example, Jackie mentioned, “Before I took this job with the city, I was a behavior technician, so when I started working with the city and started working on this project, it became near and dear to my heart and it was a privilege to be able to work on it.”
Another individual that was personally impacted at the ribbon cutting, specifically, was Mayor Rieder. When asked to describe the day of the ribbon-cutting ceremony and how it felt to watch such a large group of people run onto the Sears/Reeves Inclusive Playground for the first time, Mayor Rieder said, “Inspirational. That day inspired me to think of more and to do more as a community to be more inclusive.”
As an individual who was present at the ribbon cutting for the playground as well, I do not think I have ever felt or witnessed the feeling of pure joy quite like I did on that day. Since the origination of the idea of the Sears/Reeves Inclusive Playground, it has brought the community of Clarksville together in such a unique and special way that was clearly present at the dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony. There were laughs, happy tears, hugs, pride, and the vision of all children, all adults, and all families being able to come together and just play come to life. Watching that vision come to life really and truly emphasized the impact that this playground has–and will continue to have.
The Sears/Reeves Inclusive Playground was built next to the original play structure at Cline Park, and they are both surrounded by the gated fence. Including both of these structures in the fenced areas, it truly opens the play space to any and all children, adults, and families–it allows everyone to play together without separation or seclusion. The playground is also available to be a destination for day trips for Forrester Davis/M.A.C. Industries, all of the schools in the area, and any other group/club/etc. that wishes to reserve the playground for a visit.
The Sears/Reeves Inclusive Playground will make such a significant impact in our community–and surrounding communities–because its intention is simple: everyone, no matter their abilities, should be given the opportunity to feel pure joy and the inclusion that this playground will offer for many years and many generations to come.
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After her time at the University of the Ozarks, Abby Asencio graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She now works as our Community Relations Director, continuing to connect our community.