Kyle’s Kitchen helps fundraising efforts for Gwendolyn’s Playground
Kyle Ferro loves when a guest steps through that door at Kyle’s Kitchen, the restaurant named after him.
He enjoys greeting people or sitting down and talking with them. It means a lot to him to connect with the community, and it gives people a chance to see Kyle, who was developmentally delayed, for his abilities.
Gwendolyn Strong had the same spirit.
Gwendolyn was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a congenital condition that limited her mobility. But she didn’t let anything limit her desire, much like Kyle’s, to connect with others.
It makes sense that the families of Gwendolyn, who died at age 7 in 2015, and Kyle, 17, are working together to make everyone feel included.
That’s the point of Gwendolyn’s Playground.
The all-inclusive $6 million play area, where kids in wheelchairs or on walkers can go up ramps inside a Magic Tree and reach for the sky, is becoming a reality at Dwight Murphy Field in Santa Barbara. It’s being financed by the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation.
Almost $2 million has been raised so far, Victoria Strong, Gwendolyn’s mother and the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation executive director, told the News-Press. She said the deadline to raise the rest is the end of 2022. “We’re breaking ground in 2023.”
Kyle’s Kitchen is helping the foundation’s financial effort by working to raise $25,000.
“We’ve known the Strongs for a while,” Deanna Ferro, the restaurant co-owner and Kyle’s mom, told the News-Press. “We wanted to collaborate with each other for a long time.”
The two families planned to start their collaboration. Then COVID-19 hit, and plans were delayed.
Now efforts are underway, with Kyle’s Kitchen raising money for Gwendolyn’s Playground by donating a percentage of sales at its three locations — two in Goleta (7000 Hollister Ave. and 5723 Calle Real) and one in Santa Barbara (791 Chapala St).
In addition to the donation from sales, each location has a sign in its dining room, where people can scan a QR code to donate money.
And while you’re there, you might run into Kyle, who has become a celebrity over the years in the Santa Barbara area. He greets visitors, and his hours are rotated among the three locations.
“Kyle is extremely social. That’s probably the best description of him,” Mrs. Ferro said. “He loves people. He just wants to connect with every single person he meets.
“He’s been great with the restaurant,” she said. “He goes in and works shifts now and has a helper who facilitates any type of communication.”
Kyle busses tables, refills ketchup bottles and brings guests anything they need, Mrs. Ferro said. “And if he wants to sit down at a table and talk to somebody, that’s fine too.”
Mrs. Ferro and her husband, Jay Ferro, started Kyle’s Kitchen in 2014. Since then, their restaurant has raised more than $200,000 for local nonprofits, Mrs. Ferro said.
She noted that the restaurant won’t stop until it meets its fundraising goal of $25,000 for Gwendolyn’s Playground. “We have Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up. I hope people get ahold of the holiday feeling of giving to each other.”
Mrs. Ferro praised Santa Barbara couple Victoria and Bill Strong, Gwendolyn’s parents, and their foundation for the work on the playground.
“I think it’s going to be a hub for the community, where everyone can get together,” Mrs. Ferro said. “My three girls can run around and can play with Kyle and all the other kids in the community. It’s such an example of inclusiveness and how it can only benefit everybody.”
The need for the playground became apparent to Mr. and Mrs. Strong when Gwendolyn was growing up.
“One of the things when Gwendolyn was little that we learned quite quickly is that playgrounds are not accessible,” Mrs. Strong told the News-Press. “While we thought the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) established protections, we quickly learned that the bar is extremely low.”
“There is not one play structure that a child in a wheelchair or a walk is able to go into. They’re made to watch from the bottom,” Mrs. Strong said. “I think that’s just wrong.”
Mrs. Strong added that playgrounds in Santa Barbara have lacked something for able-bodied children as well. “My middle daughter, Eleanora, is able-bodied and extremely physical, and she aged out of all our playgrounds by the time she was 3. She had mastered them.”
Mrs. Strong saw the need for a playground that includes everyone, whatever their level of ability.
“We’ve pulled from the best of what’s happening in the U.S. and in Europe, and we’re creating a new standard of play,” Mrs. Strong said.
The answer is Gwendolyn’s Playground.
“The heart of the playground is the Magical Tree. It will be the first multi-story, fully accessible climbing structure,” Mrs. Strong said. “We’re creating it so that it will be fully accessible.”
Kids in wheelchairs or on walkers will be able to go up ramps inside the tree and go to the very top.
Just like other kids.
“The ramping will be functional and will look like vines and be very aesthetically pleasing,” Mrs. Strong said.
And kids will encounter storytellers in the Magical Tree. “We’ve already had authors volunteer to do readings for children and do book signings, all in the name of celebrating diversity and inclusion,” Mrs. Strong said.
She said Gwendolyn’s Playground will have the feel of a theme park. “Sometimes when I say ‘playground,’ people don’t realize how drastically different this space will become,” she said.
“We have partnered with the Grace Fisher Foundation, which is helping to create a music garden,” Mrs. Strong said.
The music garden is where kids of all ages can do things like striking up a melody by jumping around on a giant keyboard.
“There’s going to be these flower chimes, shaped like flowers that play beautiful music,” Mrs. Strong said, her voice growing more excited as she talked about the playground named after her daughter.
The playground will also have a play arc, which uses sensory technology when people roll or dance under it. “When it senses movement, it plays music,” Mrs. Strong said.
She noted the playground’s swings will include one that is wheelchair-accessible.
“So oftentimes with the best of intentions, any wheelchair accessibility is off to the side of playgrounds and is the opposite of inclusion,” Mrs. Strong said. “This swing allows a person in a wheelchair to roll right onto it and pull levers to make the swing move.”
“ And once we actually build the playground, we will offer programming with various nonprofits, one being the Grace Fisher Foundation,” Mrs. Strong said.
Mrs. Strong praised Kyle’s Kitchen for helping the foundation’s fundraising efforts.
“Kyle’s Kitchen has been a supporter since the beginning,” she said. “For families with disabilities, there’s an instant bond. We understand what it is to have to battle the systems and how inaccessible the world still is.
“We’ve been friends with the owners (Jay and Deena Ferro) for years, and we adore what they have created with Kyle’s Kitchen,” Mrs. Strong said. “They’ve been kind and generous to the entire disability community in Santa Barbara.
“Kyle is just amazing,” she added.
In addition to the playground, the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation has been a fundraising leader in spinal muscular atrophy research.
“The research that we funded was FDA-approved shortly after her passing,” Mrs. Strong said. “It’s gene therapy replacement therapy. If given at birth, those children have no signs of the disease.”
The foundation that funded that research is named after a young girl who loved, like Kyle does today, to connect with others.
“Gwendolyn was full of joy and had a really inclusive life in Santa Barbara,” she said. “She went to school full time and went to restaurants and cafes where she was a regular and was very well loved. She just wanted to be a kid. She wanted to be with other children.
“She had magic,” Mrs. Strong said. “No matter where we were, they (children) had a lot of questions. Then it was, ‘Let’s go play!’ They wanted to play with her and be her friend.
“In parenting her, I got to witness the most beautiful humanity,” Mrs. Strong said.
Mrs. Strong said five machines kept Gwendolyn alive, and kids were naturally curious about them. “But they moved on and accepted her. She had a deep, meaningful relationship with other children.”
Mrs. Strong said she has kept in touch with Gwendolyn’s friends, who are now 14.
“Their lives were transformed because they knew someone very different from themselves,” she said. “They tell me that when they face adversity or they feel different, they think about Gwendolyn and her courage and strength and their friendship with her.”