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March 4, 2016

Plans Set for All-Accessible Playground

Aaron Myers, Harmony Playground project chairman, displays artists’ renditions of the future playground that will be inclusive for all ages and abilities.

From Effingham Daily News (
Story and photo by Dawn Schabbing
Published March 4, 2016

EFFINGHAM — What began with a simple request for a single wheelchair swing by a local parent has transpired into a plan to build a full-blown, all-inclusive play area that will be called Harmony Playground.

The slogan for the proposed playground is, “No matter the ability, we all play in harmony.”

Jeff Althoff, executive director for Effingham Park District, said after hearing stories of day-to-day struggles from two different families of disabled children, he knew more than a single swing was needed.

“Emily Drake reached out to me, asking about the possibility of adding a wheelchair swing for her daughter,” said Althoff. “I wanted to accommodate this request and so I invited her to come meet with me. When she came, she also brought another parent with her.”

“Going to play should not be a part of their struggles of everyday life,” he added. “So, that’s when we got started.”

Parents began chatting about different ideas they’d love to see their child have access to here in their hometown. Ideas began to build and meetings were held. Now, the grassroots team is seeking the help of others to raise $700,000 to fund the colorful, musical, safe playground for all abilities.

“We got to dreaming about how awesome it would be to have more equipment, then it transitioned into talking about a new playground that was entirely inclusive,” said Emily Drake of Effingham.

“Our dream is that everyone can play together regardless of their abilities,” said Drake. “Grandparents will be able to play with their grandchildren. Disabled veterans and adults can be with their loved ones on the playground. The visually impaired will have things that will help them maneuver around the playground. And those with Cochlear implants can play on the roller slide without the worry of static that could otherwise zap those (hearing) implants.”

The style of playground ensures five elements of healthy play are met for anyone using the area: social and emotional, physical, sensory, cognitive, and communication.

A planning and fundraising committee was formed and it all began with four local families, each who have a child with a disability. But until all funds are raised, there are no plans to break ground for construction, said Aaron Myers, chairman of the project. In the first two weeks of fundraising, $100,000 was raised, he said.

Gifting monetarily will be recognized on four scale levels: Performer, Director, Composer and Artisan. Levels begin at $100, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 respectively.

“Children are God’s gifts to us,” said Myers. “We want to give the gift of play back to these children.”

“It is an all-inclusive playground, meaning that anybody of any age, regardless of disabilities, will have a place to play and interact,” said Myers. “As of right now, Effingham doesn’t have a facility where children with disabilities can play and interact.”

The playground will be situated on 17 acres the park district owns directly behind the Richard E. Workman Sports and Wellness Complex.

.“As a park, we are required to use this property for outdoor use,” said Althoff. “It will be a free playground for anyone to use. There’s not a playground like this around. I expect it will draw people from other communities.”

ADA compliant means giving everyone access to the playground. But, Harmony Playground will go beyond the legalities of ADA, said Myers. Some of the features include wide ramps that will allow two wheelchairs to pass by each other. Ramps will take users from the bottom to the top. Harmonic instruments provide a sensory rich play time. Swings will handle small groups.

“Children with disabilities who are confined to a wheelchair feel segmented to certain areas,” said Myers. “This playground is breaking down those barriers and allowing children to interact and play with their peers. That’s a key component to the development of any child.”

The budget will include the construction of a pavilion with ADA restroom, complete with adult-style changing tables, inside.

The musical-themed playground will have large piano keys and other instruments for sensory and sound benefits around the area. As the sun shines, some of the equipment will project images onto the ground as well, Myers said.

There also will be park benches and some shaded areas. The goal is to eventually add lighting for night-time use, as some people can’t tolerate the sun. The ground will be covered with rubber tiles that will still allow walkers and wheelchairs to maneuver around and provide some protection should a child fall.

Donations may be made by contacting Joedy Hightower, President/CEO of Southeastern Illinois Community Foundation, 217-342-4988; or Myers, 217-342-7306; or Jami Ludwig, 217-663-8989. Learn more on the Harmony Playground Facebook page, or Effingham Park District’s website.

Dawn Schabbing can be reached at or 217-347-7151, ext. 138.

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