‘It’s really emotional for me’: Mother of autistic son spearheads $500,000 playground

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It seemed nearly impossible for a rural community in Nova Scotia to raise almost half a million dollars to build a play park for children and adults of all skill levels. But he did.

The Universal Design Queens Playground materializes in Liverpool. The floor is broken and the parts have been ordered, but COVID has delayed the planned spring opening.

“It’s really emotional for me,” said Debbie Wamboldt, the mother who was the driving force behind the project.

The park is located near the Queens Place Emera Centre.

Due to be completed in a few months, the park will be fenced off for the safety of those who might flee. It will have a wheelchair-accessible wading pool, wheelchair-accessible swings and a merry-go-round.

The park was supposed to be completed earlier this year, but equipment has been delayed by the pandemic. (Facebook)

A rendering of the playground. (Facebook)

It has bright colors and ramps that access all equipment. It even has a quiet pod for those looking for a place to get away from the noise.

It all started with a letter to the Mayor of the Queens Region Municipality during a 2016 municipal election.

Wamboldt worried that no candidate would talk about accessibility.

Brayden and Brodie Howard helped raise $800 through a bottle drive. Their donation was matched by a private donor. (Facebook)

A local convenience store donated. (Facebook)

Her then seven-year-old son Angus, who had autism, had never been able to use a playground. Angus would be overstimulated by sights and sounds that could cause him to run towards traffic or waterways.

Wamboldt rallied parents of autistic children behind her. She sent the letter to David Dagley, explaining the barriers people with special needs face in a regular playground.

“He contacted me and he said your letter really touched me,” Wamboldt said.

The community bought thousands of cookies to support the project. (Facebook)

So it started. Wamboldt and the determined parents created the play park project. The goal was not just to build a playground for autistic children, but for children of all ages and abilities.

Wamboldt supported Autism Nova Scotia and the public responded.

“People were just throwing money at it”

Wamboldt said the project raised more than $200,000 at the community level. He then raised funds from all three levels of government and several large organizations.

“Community buy-in is really what influenced a lot of the bigger sponsors,” Johnston said.

A girl donated her birthday money and Christmas money two years in a row. A religious group went canvassing.

There were bake sales, lemonade stands and costume parties. A private sponsor matched every donation at one time and the project even received commemorative contributions. A collection of cookies Tim Hortons has repeatedly run out of cookies.

A young girl wrote a letter to Santa Claus asking for money for the playground. She later donated it to the cause. (Facebook)

“People were just throwing money at it…and it’s supposed to be a low-income county,” said Elise Johnston, accessibility coordinator for the area.

The goal was $350,000, but more than $450,000 was raised, Johnston said.

Autism Nova Scotia provided the funds to the municipality earlier this year.

“When a municipality pilots a project, then everyone goes there, huh? They have money? They don’t need it. Norman.

Example for other municipalities

Wamboldt said the project could be an example for other communities.

She said policy discussions about accessibility often omit autism. In Canada, one in 66 young people is diagnosed with autism. Wamboldt says she’s on the spectrum.

Autism Nova Scotia says it is not aware of any parks or playgrounds specifically for children with autism in the province, but there are inclusive playgrounds.

There is an inclusive park that children with autism can use at Westmount Elementary School in Halifax.

The Straits Regional Education Center has accessible sensory rooms and structures on school playgrounds for children with autism and other abilities.

“Autism has really big impacts on the community and really needs to be looked at when it comes to accessibility,” Wamboldt said.

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