Utah County opened its first ever all-abilities playground October 2016 in Orem. Six months later, the park has exceeded the expectations of those who helped create it.
The Orem City government reached out to residents via Facebook on Sept. 4, 2014, explaining the city received $9 million from the CARE tax to build or restore recreational amenities. The city asked its residents where they thought the money should go.
Two mothers, each with disabled children, commented on the Facebook post with the same idea: make an existing playground accessible to children in wheelchairs.
What started as a simple idea quickly grew into a two-year, $1.2 million project. Neither Katrina Bleyl nor Mindy Gleason had any idea what their Facebook comments would produce.
“We had no idea that it would be this big,” Bleyl said.
Orem officials called Bleyl and Gleason and asked them to create a presentation. Bleyl said she and Gleason went in just hoping for a wheelchair-accessible swing or a solid surface wheelchair-bound children could access.
When Bleyl found out the city planned to build an entire accessible playground, she “did a happy dance.”
“Just knowing that it wouldn’t just affect (my daughter), but knowing that it would affect other kids in the area, and not just Orem,” Bleyl said, choking back tears. “It just builds awareness and kindness, and all sorts of good stuff.”
Gleason didn’t realize how expensive the project would be. When it took off, Gleason said she often worried if the city would be able to build the different parts of the playground.
“But everyone we told about it thought it was an awesome idea,” Gleason said.
However, there were still some people who expressed doubt, according to Gleason. While she also had doubts, she remained positive.
“Fake it till you make it, right?” Gleason said.
Assistant to the City Manager and BYU alum Steven Downs said the city initially set aside $150,000 from the CARE tax, 12.5 percent of the ending total cost of the project. Big and small donations as well as fundraisers such as a belly flop contest, selling pickets for a fence surrounding the park and a visit from Jimmer Fredette, made up half a million dollars.
Comedian Brian Regan pledged to donate $1 for every ticket he sold, in addition to buying a wheelchair-accessible swing for Gleason’s daughter Presley. Presley sent a video to Regan thanking him, and he sent one back.
Former BYU basketball player Jimmer Fredette held a shootout in June 2016 to raise money for the playground, as well. Those who attended the shootout had the opportunity to pledge money for every three-point shot Fredette made. As a result, Fredette raised $24,668.28 for the new playground.
In addition to money, several companies donated labor. All of the excavating, pipe laying and concrete pouring for the playground was made possible by local construction companies.
“People just started coming out of the woodwork,” Downs said of the volunteers and donors to the playground.
The project needed 3,200 volunteers, and 4,100 people showed up, according to Wolfley.
Many volunteers shared heartwarming stories, inspiring them to be personally involved in the project. Both Downs and BYU alum Pete Wolfley, City of Orem communications specialist, said it has changed their lives.
“For me, I think I saw a whole segment of the population that I had overlooked. Before I hadn’t given much thought to whether or not there were certain types of kids that could or couldn’t play at playgrounds,” Wolfley said. “And just inclusion in general — how can we get more people involved?”
Volunteers constructed the playground in just a week — what Downs referred to as “build week.”
Downs described witnessing a touching moment between Bleyl and her daughter Brinley after the completion of the playground. Brinley sat with her mom on a pirate ship on the playground, having a great time and directing her mom to steer.
“I remember thinking, ‘She’s had this imagination her whole life. She’s just never had a place to express it. She usually has to sit on the sidelines. And now, she has a place that she can go out and, like my kid, can express it the same way every other kid can,'” Downs said.
Downs also said he’s excited for his kids, who don’t have disabilities, to see they have much in common with kids with disabilities.
“That moment just hit me so hard,” Downs said.
Wolfley said he has seen an “incredible” impact of the park over the past six months. He said the park is particularly important as the seasons transition into spring and summer.
“Word continues to spread throughout Utah County and beyond that there is a special playground in Orem where all children, regardless of ability, have a place to reap the physical, social, and cognitive benefits of inclusive play,” Wolfley said. “The playground is well-used and well-loved.”