Fundraising for fully accessible Belchertown playground enters final stretch

Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2014

BELCHERTOWN — After nearly four years of fundraising events ranging from motorcycle rides to wine tastings as well as large infusions of cash from the town’s Community Preservation Act, the final push is on to raise money for Jessica’s Boundless Playground.

The nearly $500,000 price tag, which does not include donated labor, is as eye-popping as the commitment volunteers have made to ensure that every aspect of the recreational area set to be constructed on town land near the Chestnut Hill Community School is fully accessible to children and adults of all abilities.

It is being built in memory of Jessica Martins, who was born with Rett syndrome, a degenerative neurological disease. She died in 2009 at the age of 19.

The philosophy behind boundless playgrounds is that no children should have to sit and watch others play because they cannot get onto the structures. They are also meant to allow adults with disabilities to play with their children.

The goal is to raise the final $200,000 between now and the end of August, according to Patti Thornton, a professional fundraiser for Smith College who took this project on as a volunteer. That’s when Team Jessica, the committee leading the effort, plans to order equipment from a Minnesota company specializing in playgrounds. A community construction day is scheduled for Sept. 13. A week later, if all goes according to plan, a rubber surface will be poured to cover the entire area.

“I believe in this project with all my heart, it is near and dear to me,” said Thornton, who has been a friend for 30 years of Vicky Martins Auffrey, Jessica’s mother and president of the Team Jessica committee.

The annual Town Meeting this year approved a third Community Preservation Act grant to the project, bringing the total amount taxpayers are chipping in to $140,000.

The main structure will have two wide ramps leading to an elevated platform that wends its way along the play stations, giving those in wheelchairs access to them. The playground will also have sensory panels for children to explore based on texture and sounds.

“It’s going to mean the world” to children with disabilities, said Kerry Sheppard, a physical education teacher at the Nonotuck Community School in Florence who is part of the organizing committee. “They will get to play on a really cool structure with all their friends and not feel like they can’t do something. And the fact that they are going to be able to be on every inch of that playground with their friends is just amazing.”

According to Thornton, Jessica’s Boundless Playground will be among the largest of its kind in New England and the only fully accessible one in western Massachusetts. “From the time you drive in and park, every single piece of the playground will be accessible,” she said. “There will be no wood chips, nothing to hinder somebody with a walker, or with crutches or in a wheelchair.”

Complete accessibility is a key aspect of the project. “That was one of the committee’s non-negotiables, to have the poured-in-place rubber surface throughout the playground,” said Sheppard.

Martins Auffrey, who manages The Hair Shop in Hadley, said the design process included collaboration with occupational and physical therapists as well as paraprofessional educators and parents of children with disabilities. As her daughter was growing up, Martins Auffrey said, she made every effort to ensure her child was included in as many activities as possible.

“I always valued inclusion and that’s what I wanted for Jessica,” she said. “After she passed away this gave me something else to be an advocate for, that all children should be able to access a playground.”

Thornton said that in addition to the CPA grants, the money raised so far includes $40,000 from the Beveridge Family Foundation, which supports organizations in Hampshire and Hampden counties, $5,000 from Country Bank and $85,000 in personal donations.

Fundraising events include a basketball clinic June 16 at Belchertown High School with members of the University of Massachusetts basketball team and their coach Derek Kellogg. All proceeds from the $40 entry fee will go toward the project.

The group also will receive a $5,000 challenge grant from an anonymous donor if at least 500 individuals or businesses each donate $100 or more by June 30. Thornton hopes the Be One Challenge, as they are calling it, will double the minimum that would be raised if successful, bringing the total to $105,000. She also has three foundation applications pending. “You apply in December and then you wait until June,” she said.

Among the sensory elements on the playground will be a color splash panel, an imagination table panel and a sensory wall. Andrew Berger, a consultant with O’Brien & Sons Inc., the Medfield company that Team Jessica hired to help coordinate the project, said those elements are designed to engage autistic children. They are produced by Landscape Structures Inc. in Delano, Minnesota.

“I love that Jessica’s name is on this project. I am so proud to know that she would love that,” said Martins Auffrey.


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