This holiday season, a very special group of young Calgarians is looking for help getting outside to play.
While most parents take for granted that their children can visit a local playground, for some of the most medically-vulnerable children, this is an almost logistical impossibility.
And for some of these children, it could mean being able to touch grass for the first time in their lives.
“Play is so important, whether you’re medically fragile or not,” said Pam McGladdery, CEO of the Universal Service Rehabilitation Agency (URSA).
URSA, along with non-profit housing provider HomeSpace, are looking to raise $200,000 in order to build a fully accessible and inclusive playground next to URSA’s Cub House in Martindale.
This will provide the children, many of whom are in wheelchairs or use walkers and require constant medical supervision, the ability to have the freedom to play like their peers.
“Never have there been children more deserving of a spark of joy in their living space,” said Bernadette Majdell, CEO of HomeSpace.
Providing for those who need more than acute care
At the Cub House, children who are medically fragile are provided 24 hours a day medical care by pediatric nurses. The facility is the only one of its kind in Calgary
The facility was created by URSA after it became apparent that children who had received acute pediatric care at the Children’s hospital needed more.
“These little ones were in the hospital, and medically they were ready to be discharged, but there was no community operator that was able to provide the services,” said McGladdery.
These children exited the hospital still needing a high level of care. In some cases after having had tracheotomies, or requiring to be on ventilators.
The staff at Cub House help to take care of the medical needs for these children, allowing them to return to their homes in their communities.
A playground for those who haven’t been able to play
Michael Greenhough, a playground design consultant, said that there has been a real learning curve for creating playgrounds that meet the needs of special needs and medically vulnerable children.
“The key here is really making sure that things are unencumbered, you want to make sure you’ve got a lot of space, you’ve got play toys for everybody,” he said.
“When designing for people who bound to a wheelchair or medically incapable of walking, we want to make sure that there’s good flat surfaces, we want to make sure there’s good wide open spaces, and to be able to have them and their handlers navigate safely and securely throughout the site.”
The playground will have a variety of play stations, and a level access universal carousel, along with some open grass space.
“Our plan is to have a grassy area where we could do ball play and yard games, as well as specific items that could be for people that are in wheelchairs and or those that are not,” said McGladdery.
“Kids can get out of their wheelchair and feel what it’s like to be on grass, probably for the first time, in many cases,” she said.
Greenhough said that they have also created a design that is safe for the children, while still providing them high quality of play.
He said that this playground has two features that he was particularly excited about. First, a magnetic white board that will allow children to paint and draw.
“It’s included learning and it gives them something fun to play with,” he said.
Secondly, and most exciting for him, was the inclusion of the level access carousel.
“We all grew up with a merry go round—we all grew up flying off merry go rounds—the key to that particular feature though, is it is an inclusive piece and it is specifically designed to be that inclusive piece,” said Greenhough.
“Anyone can use it but, especially those in wheelchair. The concept of them being able to roll on to the platform, secure themselves on the platform, have a friend with them and have someone spin the platform with them—whether that’s a brother or a sister, you know, parent, caregiver—everybody can interact on this particular platform.”
Making a difference for families
Kirsty Venner and Jeff Kundry are parents to Becky, one of the children who receives help from URSA. Becky will have access to the new playground.
“Before Becky was with URSA, we had her living in the home, and it was very difficult because she needed constant care,” said Venner.
Because of their child’s medical needs, Venner had to leave her career. This meant managing her daughter’s health, and a team of caregivers, which made it impossible to live a normal life.
Kundry said that addressing even normal everyday activities like preparing a family dinner got bumped because of Becky’s medical needs.
Thanks to the care that URSA provides for Becky, it has made their family house a home again.
“We can spend quality time with Becky now instead of just managing her as a project,” she Venner.
The pair are looking forward to having a space again where Becky will be able to play. As she got older, it wasn’t possible to take her to the swings she loved so much.
“She really loved swings, and she really loved to be around other kids that are enjoying themselves. She seems to really feed and get the energy from those kids and she doesn’t experience it very often, so this would be a really enriching for her,” said Venner.
Looking for community donations
URSA has already put down deposits for playground equipment and contractors, but is looking for help from Calgarians to complete the $200,000 required to build the playground.
The organization has been able to line up local businesses, non-profits, and community partners that have stepped up to seed the project with funding.
"So any dollar that a Calgarian can give during Christmas time, or anytime—no amount is too small, and that $10 helps and turns into $20, and $100 turns into $200," said McGladdery.
URSA is looking at having the playground built in the springtime for the kids, and donations can be made on their website.
"I think every child deserves to have a fun place to play, and for a long time, we haven't had that opportunity for medically fragile kids in Calgary," said Venner.
"All we're asking is to have that same enjoyment for our kids."