Rising up on the north side of Davenport's Vander Veer Botanical Park is a new kind of playground.
With a rubberized, ramped entry, it will be accessible to kids in wheelchairs. An igloo-like dome will offer a cozy hideout for children on the autism spectrum who need to block out commotion. A xylophone will offer the gift of sound to those who are sight-impaired. And, of course, there will be swings, slides and climbing features.
But this $600,000 inclusive playground is not a capital improvement project of the city.
While the city contributed $85,000, this space was birthed by a loving grandmother who thought parks should offer her wheelchair-bound grandson something more than just a place to watch other kids play.
Her dream was simple, but not so simple to accomplish.
"We've been at this for a long time," Gloria Cypret, of Davenport, said last week on a visit to the park-in-progress with grandson Gabe.
Cypret, a Rock Island Arsenal retiree, learned two main lessons since she started her quest in 2013. First, the creation of an inclusive playground means more than providing physical access. Second, nothing beats the support of caring people with deep pockets to meet financial goals.
What inclusive means
To get started with her dream, Cypret and her team — a group of friends and supporters known as Gabe's Dream Team — organized a meeting in 2013 at Davenport's Eastern Avenue Library.
They invited "pertinent people," such as special education teachers and pediatric occupational and physical therapists and, with a big piece of butcher block paper taped to a wall, brainstormed ideas and wrote them down.
"Oh my gosh," Cypret said of the community input. "We were just focused on Gabe and his little buddies, but it's so much bigger than that."
They realized features could be tailored toward children with Down syndrome and on the autism spectrum and those with sight and hearing impairments. And accessible ramps would be great for grandparents or other adults in wheelchairs or walkers who want to accompanying their grandchildren or young friends.
With a list of needs, Cypret contacted Inclusion Matters, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit founded in 1998 by a husband and wife whose son was born with spinal muscular atrophy and died just two weeks after birth. Through grief, the couple began searching for a way to honor their son's life. Realizing their son's disability would have prevented him from ever playing on a playground with other children, they decided to create an inclusive park.
Once the park opened, calls came in from other areas wanting their own such parks.
Inclusion Matters is adamant that every child has a right to play.
Its website contains powerful statements about how children with disabilities are often excluded from play, friends and social communities and how that harmful isolation can impact the trajectory of their lives.
But with play, children build confidence and make friends and with an inclusive space, children with and without disabilities can play as equals.
"Play," a child says on a website video, "is an invitation to 'can' and 'will' and 'why not.'
"It's not 'can't' and 'don't' and 'you're not strong enough.'
"You learn together, grow together, be together.
"Play will always shape us."
Gabe's All-Inclusive Play Village, as the Vander Veer playground will be known, is the nonprofit's 74th, custom-designed, from-scratch play space.
"You just tell them what you want and they build it for you," Cypret said.
'Real work' starts once the playground is built
In addition to wheelchair-accessibility, there are tactile and sensory features, said Brad Thornton, senior vice president for Inclusion Matters' global project development. Examples: a collection of colorful gears that turn and a sphere of shiny marbles (secured in place) that can be counted. The structure's earth-toned color palette was selected to respect Vander Veer's botanical emphasis.
"We wanted to make sure it fit well," Cypret said. "Vander Veer is so beautiful."
To turn designs into three-dimensional reality, Inclusion Matters partners with Landscape Structures Inc., a worldwide playground design firm based in Delano, Minnesota.
Construction is expected to be finished by June, depending on weather and COVID-19-imposed restrictions, but that won't be the end of the nonprofit's involvement.
Once the playground is built, "that's when the real work begins," Thornton said.
To help ensure the playground provides the benefits for which it was built, the nonprofit works with community organizations, such a parks departments and schools, to provide training and share programs that have worked elsewhere.
"The service we provide is not just 'build and leave,'" Jennifer Quick, education program manager, said. "We want to build awareness of the importance of social inclusion."
One key program called My Play Club is a bi-monthly play date for children of all abilities. Structured activities might include face-painting, crafts and one-on-one sharing. Its goal is to give children with disabilities a community connection, she said.
The second key component is Together We Are Able, a monthly program through schools in which children with and without disabilities meet up. This typically involves fourth and fifth grade students in a three-step process: a pre-playground conversation about what's coming up, a field trip to the playground and a post-playground conversation about what happened, Quick explained.
How the money was raised
In addition to assembling a team, securing nonprofit status for tax-deductible contributions, meeting with parks and recreation officials and making a presentation to the Davenport City Council, Cypret pushed ahead with fundraising in the only ways she knew how.
She and other team members organized trivia nights, many sponsored by businesses. They sold diner's club books, keeping $10 for every $35 sale. They delivered Yellow Books for a communications company, getting a percentage for each book. They held bake sales, sponsored a "fun run," applied for grants and made "asks."
A Sunday school teacher at Risen Christ Lutheran Church on Davenport's Northwest Boulevard adopted the project, and her students collected $197.25.
Donation jars were placed near the cash registers of local businesses; the Family Restaurant on West Kimberly Road kept its jar going for 4½ years.
All this effort raised a substantial amount of money, but it was never enough, Cypret said. Every year, it seemed, there was a 3% cost increase.
"We were chasing our tails," Cypret said.
"We realized we needed some champions here. We're all just worker bees. Maybe I wasn't selling it properly."
Around the same time, money was being raised for Miracle Field, an inclusive ball field in north Davenport.
The field was an initiative of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, with funds coming from many public and private donors. But some people thought that in donating to the field, "they were donating to both," Cypret said of Gabe's playground.
"That was a huge hiccup."
Enter, Decker and Duffy
Finally, a mutual friend suggested Cypret contact Don Decker, retired director of R.W. Baird & Co. and widely known as founder of Rejuvenate Davenport, a nonprofit responsible for demolishing blighted buildings in downtown Davenport, beginning in the 1980s.
As Decker himself will tell you, his first response to requests for money is no, partly because he gets so many and partly because he already has a list of causes.
But Cypret's pitch softened him up.
He arranged for Cypret to talk to his pal Mike Duffy, president and CEO of Per Mar Security Services. Duffy, too, agreed that hers was "a really good project."
Together Decker and Duffy organized a breakfast in September of 2018 provided by Mike Whalen at his Thunder Bay Grille and invited 28 people with deep pockets. Cypret shared her vision and when the breakfast was over, about $105,000 had been raised, Cypret said.
The project could go forward.
How Gabe's doing
Cypret describes Gabe as a person born with cerebral palsy and an intellectual deficit. When she first started her quest for a playground, he was 10. He's now 17 and has grown to his full height. He lives with his grandparents — Gloria and Mike — and attends Bettendorf High School where he can continue until he is 21. He speaks in short sentences.
He, his grandparents and his nurse came out to the park last week, but the wind was blustery and cold. He wanted to get back into the warm van.
But he smiled, and gave a wave to the playground. Gabe's playground.
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