by BEN MCLEOD
The city of Winona is a green place. With an estimated 27 parks and 14 playgrounds, Winona residents of all ages have dozens of opportunities to enjoy the areas green spaces. Or almost all Winonans — there is not a single play area in the city that meets the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements for disabled children. One local playground has handicap-accessible equipment installed that has not been updated since 1951. Fortunately there is a powerhouse team-up of Winona’s three Lion’s Club chapters –– the Sunset, Noon, and Rivertown clubs –– that are in the process of raising funds to renovate the play area near the bandshell and Veterans’ Memorial Park into a facility that all children can enjoy, regardless of barriers that preclude them from enjoying other playgrounds.
But the Lions have a steep climb. With an estimated cost of $675,000 for the renovation, the Lions are still $209,000 short, in spite of generous donations from local businesses and hundreds of individual Winonans. The Lions may have three Winona chapters, but they can’t fund the entire project out of their own pockets. So they’ve come to the community with an appeal for help.
Lake Park in April is a lovely place to play, or just enjoy the sun and spectacular views. Frequent performances in the bandshell, the peaceful tranquility of Veterans’ Memorial Park, and the nearby larger of the two lakes that is host to an array of wildlife all make for an idyllic park experience. Noon Lion’s Club member and Every Child’s Dream Chair Jack Krage wants to be sure that all Winona children have a place to play, regardless of ability, and he’s not alone. “I went to my Lion’s Club to propose that we undertake this project in conjunction with the other two clubs, and there was 100-percent agreement. It’s hard to get that many people with no dissension.”
“Rosie [my wife] and I were at a Lions convention four years ago,” Krage explained, “and International Director Larry Dicus spoke about Matteo’s Dream.” Matteo Henderson was a blind child confined to a wheelchair who lived in Concord, Calif., “and when his mom sought to take him to the playground to burn off energy and keep his mind off things, she did not find a playground near their home other than ones equipped for an average-skilled child,” recalled Krage. “She came to the [local] Lions and said ‘please, can you help?’” The local Lions chapters mobilized and, along with a grant from their international arm, raised half a million dollars to build “a playground for children of all abilities.” Krage said, “I looked at Rosie and said ‘How many Matteos are in Winona?”
When they returned to Minnesota, Krage recalled searching for the specific number of children who could benefit from an all-access park. So he went to School District 861. “How many kids are we talking about? Fifteen? Twenty? They keep their statistics on a grade-by-grade basis and told me they would call back the next day,” said Krage. When they spoke the following day, Krage recalled, “They said ‘I hope you’re sitting down.’”
District 861 estimates that there are 325 Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) children who cannot use the swings, slides, and structures that are crucial to the cognitive, social and physical development of all children, regardless of challenges to physical abilities. These barriers present more than an inconvenience to children with developmental issues — disabled children already face tremendous challenges that will follow them throughout their lives, and every opportunity for safe play with other children is an experience that can be life-changing. Especially for children who have reduced chances to be active and enjoy the outdoors. Amy Adams, director of special education for WAPS, was enthusiastic about the project. “We’ve determined to make playgrounds that are good for one child good for all children,” she said. “We want to level the playing field, so all children have equal access to play and [to] learn and grow. It is important, absolutely. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have playgrounds.”
Krage recalled visits to playgrounds with his own now-grown children. “I can remember a child in [leg] braces sitting on a bench while his siblings played. That must have been a real lot of fun. Or a [child in a] wheelchair on a ramp, watching other children play. Why would you bring your child to watch other kids play?” he said. When it comes to bringing children to play, Krage pointed out that families on the road frequently use online services to search for amenities, and if Winona boasts one of the region’s only all-inclusive play areas, conveniently located in one of the most scenic parts of town, it will be a potent draw. “If you build it, they will come,” he laughed.
The price estimated for the project has already had some chunks pared away. Webber Recreational Design, Inc., the Hastings, Minn., company that will build the new equipment will reclaim and scrap much of the old, non-compliant equipment, and will credit $115,000 for the trade-in. Winona Community Services Director Chad Ubl explained, “The Lion’s Club came to the City Council and asked us, they told us the project’s scope, and we said, ‘Of course.’ We wish them well.” The city will remove any existing equipment and prepare the site for the installation of the new components and the firm but resilient surfacing that will go around the play area.
Adams was pleasantly surprised by the community engagement. “I cannot say enough good things about the different organizations in this community,” she said. “They keep giving and giving, and that means a lot to our parents. We’re lightyears ahead of other communities. We know we can reach out, and they’ll reach out too.” One local bank, and Krage’s own workplace, Coldwell Banker River Valley Realtors, have each made donations, and the Lion’s clubs have been running a blitz of chicken-ques and pancake breakfasts, golf outings and an upcoming slow-pitch softball game. Dollar donations and door-to-door broom sales are slowly raising money, but Krage insisted, “We are determined that this will come to fruition this year. We will order the equipment to be delivered for installation next spring, and we hope to have a beautiful new playground for them to play on. It’s been hundreds or thousands of hours put in, but at the completion it is an effort extremely well-spent.”
The next Lion’s Club fundraiser for the Every Child’s Dream project will be a 12-team E-Power softball tournament on May 19. The Lion’s Club will be donating the concession sales to the project. Individuals or businesses interested in contributing to the project can find more information on the Every Child’s Dream –– Winona Facebook page.