Feighan: Blasting the way for barrier free playground
Five-year-old Scarlet Clark wanted a rocket ship.
Not a literal rocket ship, but a rocket ship that could be integrated into a playground. You can make requests like that when a playground is being designed in your honor. And not just any playground, but a barrier-free one for kids of all abilities to use, including kids like Scarlet who rely on wheelchairs to get around.
"She’s had this fascination with space," said her grandpa Stephen Clark, the same Stephen Clark who was a longtime news anchor on WXYZ but recently made the switch to morning radio as a host on Detroit's WOMC.
For more than two years, Clark and his wife, Larenne, have been working tirelessly to make this playground for their granddaughter a reality. They've raised more than half of the $1 million they expect they'll need and they already have been deeded land by Commerce Township in Dodge Park No. 5 near the township's new library.
But fundraising for a playground is one thing; Scarlet is fighting a much bigger battle. She was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition that affects her ability to develop muscles. Many children with SMA don't live beyond the age of 2.
Clark said he and Larenne initially started their nonprofit Scarlet's Smile to raise money for research and to help families affected by SMA but they quickly realized they wouldn't be able to address the amount of need that was out there.
"The need is so great we would just be spitting in the wind," said Clark, ever the country singer.
It was actually a visit to a barrier free playground in Lake Orion that made them switch gears with their mission. Scarlett liked the playground with adaptive equipment for special needs kids but it was segregated. The adaptive equipment was in one area and playscapes for everyone else in another.
"It was all good for a couple minutes until she noticed there was another playground a little ways away," Clark said. "All she wanted to do is be on that playground because that's where the kids were."
"Playgrounds, by design, tend to segregate kids with special needs from the other kids and that's about the last thing they need," he said. "She's already segregated by the wheelchair. We don't need a playground to segregate her further."
Now the Clarks are working to change that with Scarlet's Park. The proposed 16,000-square-foot barrier-free playground will have a specialized rubberized surface to accommodate wheelchairs, along with double-wide ramps for easy passage of wheelchairs, shaded play decks, tunnels, zip lines, swings and more. And of course, a rocket ship.
"It's two stories and it has a ramp at the top and a ramp at the bottom so the kids can work their way all the way to the top ramp," said Clark. "And kids who can climb obviously can climb from bottom to top. It's all designed so kids who can are climbing over top of ramps for kids who can't."
A local tree service donated its services in April and cleared trees from the site. Clark says they're now trying to find a company willing to donate cement for sidewalks. They already have a company lined up to install them.
And if grants and additional fundraising falls into place -- they were just awarded a $300,000 Michigan Department of Natural Resources trust fund grant this week for the project --Clark says Scarlet's Park could be installed by as early as next spring.
Scarlet, meanwhile, can't wait. Her condition, for now, is not progressing thanks to injections of a newly approved drug for SMA called Spinraza.
"She thinks it's the greatest idea in the world," said Clark. "Her plan is she's going to invite all her friends to her playground."