After years of behind-the-scenes design and funding challenges, the Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park celebrated the opening of Maryland Park Service's first fully accessible playground at the Hollofield area of Patapsco Valley State Park in Ellicott City.
The brand-new playground, featuring components made of recycled material, is located off Route 40 and opened to park visitors last month. . The nonprofit Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park collaborated with the state park service, park rangers and Towson University to accomplish the six-year project.
Friends board member Don Wecker, who was the project leader, said the Hollofield space is not a run-of-the-mill playground because it was designed to be accessible to all children and adults, including those with mobility issues. Hollofield's original playground was much smaller, equipped with swings and a jungle gym.
On a June afternoon, kids sprinted from their parents' cars to a tall play-set pavilion that stands above simulated tree stumps that lead to a plastic hollowed log. On the other side of the pavilion is a large platform with plastic boarded siding – called an Aero Glider – that sways back and forth when rocked by riders.
The open-spaced glider is accessible from a wheelchair ramp, which also leads to interactive pictures, spinning wheels and small slides. Climbing bars connect to another section of the playground, where visitors can enjoy more open and closed slides.
The playground is built on rubberized material rather than mulch or ground-up rubber, Wecker said, making movement easier.
Sitting on a bench, Catonsville resident Chris Gallo watched his two children, 7-year-old Lucy and 3-year-old Sammy, play. Gallo said his family has lived in the area since 1979, but hasn't seen anything quite like the Hollofield playground.
"I heard they had a big new playground. It's nice," Gallo said.
"I like all of it," Lucy said.
At the lower end of the playground, Ellicott City resident Helen Brooks showed her son, 17-month-old Ezekiel, how to spin a wheel. Brooks said it was their second time visiting the playground.
"I recently moved right down the street and I saw the park entrance and came in," said Brooks, who usually visits the opposite side of the state park. "He likes things that spin, so he's been sitting here for 15 minutes spinning this wheel."
The learning tools are phenomenal, she added.
"There are a lot of learning tools, like the ABCs. I can go over there and work with him. They have something that can actually help you teach."
Wecker said Maryland Park Service Capt. Robin Melton brought the idea for a fully accessible playground to the the Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park in 2011.
According to the U.S. Access Board's Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas, full accessibility ensures that users have accessible routes to get to the play area, whether it's from a school, parking lot or facility as well as ramps, railings and transfer platforms.
Wecker said English professor Zosha Stuckey's class at Towson University formed a community partnership with the board to write grants for the project.
Stuckey said she had created a grant writing and nonprofit writing project within the college's English department and wanted her students to apply their knowledge in the real world.
"It made sense to me to work with them because I knew a lot of our students used the park," said Stuckey, who also uses the park herself. I did and do as well," Stuckey said. "I live by an ethics of service."
During the writing process, Stuckey said students become "mini experts" as they research the organizations seeking grants and the sources for funding. Once students draft the grants, they go through an extensive revision in collaboration with the organizations involved. While not all grants are submitted or funded, she said, the Towson University program has raised more than $170,000 for nonprofits in Baltimore.
"Students love writing for real causes," Stuckey said. "If all of us dedicated ourselves to improving the world and helping the people around us, then maybe Baltimore could thrive. The play space in Patapsco is significant especially because people with disabilities deserve the same if not more access than us."
Wecker said more than $77,000 in grants were raised for the playground over two years through partnerships with the Community Foundation of Howard County, the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, Coldwell Banker Cares, the John J. Leidy Foundation and the Finish Line Youth Foundation.
Additional funds were provided through a bill signed by former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley for six playgrounds across the Maryland Park System, which have all opened. Wecker said Hollofield was the only fully accessible playground of the six.
The main objective was to build a playground for everyone, Wecker said.
"Kids who have challenges can play with their friends and siblings. It's a unique design for everybody to be together," he said. "If we can help one child have a better life, we've made a difference. If we can help one wounded veteran go to a playground and be able to play with their children because they have accessibility, that's the goal."
Spokeswoman Anna Hunter said the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks will also open a "play-for-all playground" at Columbia's Blandair Park by fall 2019, with construction expected to begin this fall. The fenced-in playground will include five activity pods to stimulate children's sight and hearing.
Because Patapsco is a metro park, meaning it is close to a high-density population, Melton said the Hollofield addition made sense.
"I think it's wonderful and a nice first step," said Melton, the Friends of Patapsco State Park board member. "The more people use it, the more features the folks will look for in that area."
Rob Dyke, Hollofield's park manager, said they've already seen an increase in attendance and are working to address the need for more parking. Visitors are asked to come to the park during off-hours, like weekdays and early or later on the weekends.
"I think it's another door opening for folks to recreate," Dyke said. "We opened that for those folks who have mobility issues and now they're able to play fully on that entire playground."