DOWNERS GROVE – On Owen Chaidez' first day of school, playground woodchips became stuck in his wheelchair, and he was unable to move. His friends tried without success to free the wheels. But when the bell rang, he was left by himself.
"I wanted to find a way [so] that would never happen again," his mom, Margaret Chaidez said.
In the year and a half since, Chaidez has organized a drive to raise funds to build an inclusive, accessible playground at Hillcrest Elementary School that can be enjoyed equally by students with physical limitation and by those without.
It would feature a recycled rubber surface, instead of woodchips, along with double-wide ramps and connected structures. The plans also include a relaxation station for quiet reflection or reading, and a wheelchair swing.
Some of the design ideas, like connected structures, came following focus group interviews with students and teachers.
"The kids all wanted everything to be connected so there was a better sense of community," Chaidez said.
Her son is especially excited about the wheelchair swing.
“My son has always wanted to fly, and now he will have that opportunity in his wheelchair,” she said.
Lisa Schuh has children in both special and general education classes at Hillcrest, and she said the focus groups allowed for a design that will suit the entire student population.
"I think all the kids are generally excited about it because it will benefit all of them as a whole," she said. "Most of the kids in the focus group were in the general education classes. And a lot of them were older kids, so they had a really good insight for what would bring all the kids together."
She said the softer, rubber surface will be a benefit for her daughter Teagan, who has Down syndrome.
"Anything that is going to keep her on pace with her peers is going to be a benefit for her socially and physically," she said.
Another Hillcrest parent, Pam Baker, said the playground could make a world of difference for her daughter, Camee, who has cerebral palsy.
"I know that Camee has difficulty doing things the other kids do, but cognitively she's 100 percent," she said. "So she recognizes the differences of what's going on. The excitement on her face when I showed her the plans of what could be blew my mind. I didn't realize it was an issue, and the thought of a new playground opened up a whole new world for her."
Hillcrest is home to the district's developmental learning program, so it has a higher number of special needs students than other schools in Downers Grove. That makes it an especially appropriate place for the village's first inclusive playground, Schuh added.
A factory-certified installation crew will be hired to ensure the playground, designed by Cunningham Recreation, is compliant and safe. Community volunteers may be called upon to assist.
Chaidez hopes to have the crowdfunding website launched soon, and begin accepting tax-deductible donations to build the new, $450,000 playground. She filed the paperwork to become a 501c3 not-for-profit organization, named Dream Build Play, this spring.
She said there are no comparable playgrounds within a 20 mile radius, the closest being in Burr Ridge. However, the Burr Ridge playground does not have the wheelchair swing and other features included in the Hillcrest plan.
She said the Hillcrest playground will be a safe place for children with physical limitations from all over the area to play.
Following the completion of this project, she hopes to use her newly formed not-for-profit to design and build accessible playgrounds at all District 58 schools.
Now, her most pressing goal is to finish the project before Owen and his friends finish at Hillcrest and move on to junior high. Until then, Owen and children with physical limitations often feel left out during recess.
"He can only stay on the blacktop," she said. "And his friends don't want to stay on the blacktop, so he's a little bit isolated. He doesn't get to do a lot."
Controller James Popernik said the plan is to have the proposal on the June board agenda for approval. It would completely replace the existing Hillcrest playground, and add a smaller satellite playground for kindergartners.
"It's not just for kids who go to Hillcrest, it's something that everyone can use." - Peg Chaidez
Contact Margaret Chaidez to volunteer or donate at