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Donations allow Belle Isle to create accessible playground for children of all abilities


About 18 months ago, Nancy Smith was daydreaming during a meeting, wondering what it would take to build a playground in Detroit.

Not just any playground, mind you. Smith, a member of the Sigma Gamma Foundation, wanted a playground where children of all abilities could play. Her dream was to find a place within Detroit that could hold a fully accessible play space. Smith admits she wasn’t sure where, when or how, but she knew her service-organization sisters could make it happen.

Nancy Smith (middle, patterned coat) and members of Sigma Gamma Foundation

Nancy Smith (middle, patterned coat) and members of Sigma Gamma Foundation

Fast forward to October 2016. Smith and a dozen members of the Sigma Gamma Foundation came together with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Belle Isle Conservancy to open the island’s first fully accessible playground.

See, in Detroit, dreams can become reality. Sure, there’s red tape. Yes, there are barriers, just like there are barriers everywhere and in every city. And there’s definitely hills to climb in terms of funding. But with clear eyes, stamina and partnerships, stuff gets done. Important stuff.

When you take a fund-raising group like Sigma Gamma and partner it with the DNR, a group that has been diligently refining and redefining Belle Isle, you have something that defies bureaucracy. In fact, when Sigma Gamma approached Belle Isle as a possible location for its dream playground, the DNR and the Belle Isle Conservancy welcomed the project, officials said Thursday during the ribbon-cutting event introducing the park to the public.

Michele Young Hodges, president of the Belle Isle Conservancy, emphasized that the island’s mission is to be accessible to all people. And that mission is reflected in the work of the Sigma Gamma Foundation as well. Having this playground, Hodges added, is exceptional because it again transforms a blank space into a place where people can talk, play and build community.

playground 2The DNR offered five locations for the playground, contributed resources in terms of person power as well as infrastructure for sidewalks and site grading, said Scott Pratt, chief of the DNR’s Southern Field Operations. Sigma Gamma selected a space next to the Belle Isle Nature Zoo and Lake Muskoday – it had an amazing view, a large parking area as well as access to restrooms. With the parking space, the DNR added two new accessible parking stalls for playground visitors off of Oakway Road.

The best part of the planning, Sigma Gamma members said, was the research. Bottom line: There are no fully accessible playgrounds in Detroit. So getting one on the ground had to happen and fast. So they got to work. They visited accessible playgrounds around Southeast Michigan, and they played on all of them. They found out about the therapeutic aspects of these playgrounds. They discovered the importance of sensory play. And they found partners everywhere, especially at Penchura.

The nature-themed playground is one of a kind, said Lance Shipman, the playground’s designer from Penchura, a recreation-equipment company based in Brighton. The playground meets its first goal beautifully; it complies completely with the access guidelines as created by the federal American with Disabilities Act. It is accessible at ground level and features equipment that allows children of all abilities to enjoy this impressive attraction.

Michele Young Hodges speaks at the Grand Opening.

Michele Young Hodges speaks at the Grand Opening.

More importantly, Shipman said as he gave tours despite the rain of the playground, it allows kids to play side by side. If two friends want to ride the zip line together, and one may have a disability while the other may not, they can race one another easily. That’s because there is a zip line where the rider can be seated and still enjoy the thrill of a fast ride, the air rushing past your face and your hair flying as you move. It is a feeling, Shipman notes, all kids love and should enjoy.

“There’s opportunities for everybody to play and to engage together,” said Shipman, who noted accessible playgrounds are a growing trend across Penchura’s work. He added that these design elements should be the norm, not the exception. “When kids play together, they learn about each other. It can dispel myths about disabilities that otherwise might exist.”

The Sigma Gamma Foundation, based in Grosse Pointe, was established in 1955 and funds services for Michigan children with special needs and their families. Over the years, the foundation has donated more than $2 million to the Detroit Institute for Children.

The new playground leaves a legacy for the women of Sigma Gamma. But it also provides a bright spot on Belle Isle for all children. And it shows that a little daydreaming can go a long way toward building the spirit of Detroit even more.

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