City of Franklin, private groups raising funds for inclusive playground equipment

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When the city of Franklin began holding meetings to gather public input on a new park last year, the mood from residents was one of excitement. 

Located near the Lockwood Glen and Water’s Edge neighborhoods, the 188-acre park space is nestled along the Harpeth River, between Interstate 65 and Carothers Road. 

It will fill a need for more recreational space in the growing southeastern Franklin community, as well as the region.

Amid planning for the city’s newest park, a group of local officials and private individuals is carefully planning an inclusive playground for children and adults of all ages and abilities.

“This is where able-bodied children and kids with special needs can all be together,” said Torrey Barnhill, the executive director for nonprofit Friends of Franklin Parks. “It’s joy and happiness and play.”

Local couple build inclusive church playground

Families with both special needs children and typically developing children encounter the problem of keeping one child occupied while finding activities the child with special needs can participate in. 

Gayle and Mark Wright fall into this category. 

They moved to Franklin in 2010 with 12-year-old son, Davis, and 5-year-old daughter, Chloe. Davis has autism and cerebral palsy, which confines him to a wheelchair, while Chloe developed typically.

“They were never able to play together,” Gayle Wright said. “It’s very difficult when you have a special needs child to take them to a playground and have them not be able to play.”

“If you go to a playground that isn’t inclusive, there is no opportunity,” Mark Wright said. “There is no option for them to participate.”

The Wrights were able to do something to address the problem. When their church, Franklin First United Methodist, opened a new campus on Mack Hatcher Parkway in 2015, the Wrights endowed and designed an inclusive playground, known as the Davis Wright Playground.

Director of Children’s Ministry Carrie Altman said the playground is open to the public during regular daytime hours. It’s where the church hosts a special Easter egg hunt and visits with Santa during the holidays for members of the community with special needs, from autism to physical impairments.

The playground has a tower, with the first level wheelchair accessible, and a swing that accommodates wheelchairs. It also includes sensory features, like an enclosed, shaded space where kids can play with tiles and spinning cylinders.

Franklin Tomorrow sets the tone

While the Wrights were conceiving their playground for the church, the nonprofits Franklin Tomorrow and offshoot Friends of Franklin Parks were becoming aware of the need in the community. 

“Franklin Tomorrow really set the vision and the tone,” Franklin Parks Director Lisa Clayton said.

After vision trips to other communities, Franklin Tomorrow Executive Director Mindy Tate was among the first to identify and raise awareness about the need for an inclusive park.

“It seemed like we needed something more modern and up to date that served a wider audience,” she said.

The groups looked for land in the city and Williamson County. When they heard the city had plans to build a southeastern park in the future, all agreed it would be the right spot for such a play place.

“I’m hopeful that it will be a gathering place, a destination,” Tate said.

Park details

At the southeastern park, Clayton said 2 acres will be dedicated to the playground, which will include a shaded pavilion, accessible restrooms, a gate around the playground with rubberized flooring, as well as gliders and merry-go-round-type play equipment.

The parks department also plans to partner with Friends of Franklin Parks and the Williamson County Library to build a storybook trail, similar to the one at Pinkerton Park.

Clayton said the space would be between five to eight times the size of the Tinkerbell Playground at Pinkerton Park.

“It’s truly about engaging everybody, at all ages and capacities,” she said, noting elderly residents who want to spend time with their grandchildren at the parks can also do so. “It’s about special needs, but it’s about meeting the needs of everybody.”

Ties of love

At-large alderman Brandy Blanton sits on the inclusive playground committee formed by Friends of Franklin Parks. She is currently the director of development at High Hopes Development Center, a research-based preschool and therapeutic program for both typically developing children and those with special needs. 

The playground has become a passion project for Blanton. Her granddaughter, Elliott Grace Castro, lovingly known as “Ellie G,” passed away late in the summer at 4 years old. At birth, Ellie was diagnosed with rhizomelic chondrodysplasia punctata, a terminal form of dwarfism. 

“I was a part of it [the inclusive community] before Ellie was born, I was more engaged when she was alive and I’m even more hyper engaged now that she’s gone,” Blanton said. 

Park construction timeline

Barge Design Solutions is working on the playground design, which Clayton said will take approximately nine months. Full construction of the park should be completed two years after that. 

Though the city has agreed to pay the $13 million for the cost of infrastructure, design and development, they are working with private entities like Friends of Franklin Parks to fundraiser for the playground equipment, which will cost between $1 and $1.5 million. 

The nonprofit is currently looking for local individuals and businesses to sponsor pieces of park equipment. 

“The beauty of being able to do this inclusive park and raise funds privately is, it’s a great way for businesses to be able to lay claim on the equipment,” Blanton said. 

The overarching goal of the playground is to involve members of the community from all levels. Her voice heavy with emotion, Blanton explained how she is motivated by Ellie G’s spirit, and hopes to play with her next grandchild in the new space.

“She’s going to live on in perpetuity in a way that people like her can have something special,” she said.

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