‘They are all just kids here’: All-inclusive playground ready for play in Washington

Valerie Barmes and her family drove 20 minutes for a day of fun at the new all-inclusive playground at Longfellow Park in Washington.

Her 2-year-old son uses a wheelchair and has mobility issues. 

“He isn’t able to create his own fun, so really whenever we play with him we have to create fun for him,” the Vincennes mother and teacher explained.

“We always have to try to be creative to include him and to make situations fun for him because he can’t play with toys. He can move his arms, but he can’t manipulate toys in the way most kids could.”

Barmes and her husband also have a 6-year-old daughter. After reading on social media about the new Comforting Hearts All-Inclusive Playground at Longfellow Park in Washington, Barmes and her family decided to visit before the start of the school year.

 “It was beautiful, clean, and so nice. My daughter and son were both able to play,” Barmes said.

“My daughter was just like ‘I love this place because it’s a place my brother can play, too.’” That was really sweet.”

The grand opening for the Comforting Hearts All-Inclusive Playground was in August. The ribbon cutting and community celebration was the culmination of over a year of fundraising and grant writing to make this new space where all children can play a reality. Comforting Hearts/Washington Free Methodist Church, in partnership with the Washington Parks Department, was awarded  $150,000 in Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) funding from ROI and the Indiana Uplands READI Steering Committee to construct the all-inclusive playground at Longfellow Park in Washington. The new playground features a protective rubber surface to allow those with wheelchairs and mobility devices to access the inclusive play equipment. Sensory panels and activity walls, seesaw, slides, crawling tubes, climbing pods, swings, and whirl spinner.

In Vincennes, there are no playgrounds with adaptive equipment her son can use, so Barmes said she is happy to have an all-inclusive playground option close to home.

“There is a lot of equipment for different ages, which is nice. As he grows there are things he can do when he’s older. It was like ‘Oh! Maybe in a couple of years, he will be able to do this!’” Barmes said.

“We’re really excited it was so close. I think of Evansville having that kind of thing, which is a good hour away. It’s just the next town over.”

True community effort

The idea for an all-inclusive playground in Washington started in a support group for families and caregivers of children with disabilities that formed in the Washington Free Methodist Church. When the Comforting Hearts Support Group began meeting in the spring of 2022 there was no playground in Washington where children with disabilities could play. The playgrounds were mulch-based causing limitations for children in wheelchairs. 

Fundraising for an all-inclusive playground began not long after the group started meeting and they received permission from the City of Washington and the city’s parks and recreation department that they could use Longfellow Park as the spot for the playground. The park already had two shelter houses, a skate park, a softball field, a basketball court, and pickleball courts. The group applied for grants and the church was the 501c3 nonprofit recipient for the funding until the Comforting Hearts nonprofit was formed. 

Comforting Hearts board member Steve Sacksteder is credited by his fellow board members as the “key driver for fundraising efforts.”

Standing under a shelter house looking at the new playground Sacksteder recalled the first time he contacted Regional Opportunity Initiatives about helping to fund this new community asset. He had spoken with the organizers of the handicap-accessible PLAYoli Playground in Paoli Community Park, which was funded by an ROI Ready Communities grant, and decided to reach out to ROI.

When Sacksteder reached out to ROI in the spring of 2022 it was “perfect timing,” said ROI’s READI Project Manager Maren Harris.

In December 2021, the Indiana Uplands region was awarded $30 million in READI funds. Longfellow Park is one of 27 projects and programs committed for READI funding by the Indiana Uplands READI Steering Committee and the ROI Board of Directors.  The hope is the community will benefit from the playground for years to come in a variety of ways, including as the population grows and new families consider moving to Washington to take job opportunities in various industries there, Sacksteder explained.

“It can be used to market the city to potential employees moving to the area. The question is often asked ‘What is available here for employee families?’” he said.

Plans for an all-inclusive playground were finalized thanks to $150,000 in READI funds, a $100,000 matching grant from Patroncity, many sponsorships and donations, a bake sale, a donation from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, hosting a 5K, and a silent auction.

The Comforting Hearts Board includes mothers of children with disabilities working to advocate for their children, those who work with people who have disabilities, and special education educators. April Hunt is the board president and has been the driving force for this project, according to fellow Comforting Heart board members. 

Hunt’s daughter Kaity is in a wheelchair. April started the Comforting Hearts Support Group at the Washington Free Methodist Church, where she attends with her family. Kaity had voiced her concerns about not being able to play like other children and only watching her older sister play.

“This was truly a community effort,” Sacksteder said, noting the project received 100 letters of support initially.

The City of Washington, DSI (Developmental Services, Inc.), United Way of Daviess County, the Daviess County Community Foundation, Pancake Veterinary Services, and the Franklin P. and Arthur W. Perdue Foundation Inc. are all recognized as platinum project donors for donating $10,000 or more. Many community members, businesses, and other organizations are recognized as gold, silver, and bronze donors on the Comforting Hearts website. 

“It makes you cry,” Sacksteder continued as he stared at the playground his community worked hard to build. 

“It’s just such a blessing.”

At the grand opening, many community members showed up with their children of all abilities to celebrate.

“The more the children play together they will see they are all just kids here. The hope is that thought then spreads out to the community as they grow up,” Sacksteder said.

Adam Conder is pastor of Washington Free Methodist Church and serves on the Comforting Hearts board. Conder remembers when his daughter Cora came home from preschool and talked about her new best friend Kaity. He encouraged her to invite her new friend over for a playdate. Kaity’s mom April Hunt called the Conder family to explain Cora is welcome at their house, but that it is difficult for Kaity to visit other homes. Kaity is in a wheelchair and not every home is accessible for children in wheelchairs.

Fast forward to today, the two girls are still friends and recently started fourth grade. Conder said his favorite part of the grand opening was watching the vision the Comforting Hearts group had early on come to life. Surrounded by children of all abilities and a loving community, Cora and Kaity enjoyed a ride on the accessible glider swing for two at the playground their community worked hard to build for them.

Fundraising is ongoing for fencing around the playground and to purchase musical equipment, such as a percussion playset. Comforting Hearts is also working on a partnership with the local pickleball club, which built the nearby pickleball courts, to build a restroom. Find project and fundraising updates on their Facebook page.