$1 million raised to build inclusive playground at Dwight Murphy Field
The Gwendolyn Strong Foundation just got $1 million closer to constructing Santa Barbara’s first fully inclusive playground at Dwight Murphy Field near East Beach.
The effort began two years ago, soon after Santa Barbara residents Bill and Victoria Strong lost their daughter, Gwendolyn, at age 7 to spinal muscular atrophy.
Their Never Give Up campaign hopes to raise awareness for children with disabilities and push for inclusivity for children in school and public settings. The Foundation also works to fund research, provide practical family support and fill in the gaps needed to build a more inclusive future for those with disabilities.
Through Never Give Up, the Strongs helped pass federal legislation creating an easier path to treatments for all rare diseases, and added SMA to newborn and carrier screening recommendations.
Now, their sights are set on building a playground that includes thoughtful equipment, color and design, secure fencing, accessible play spaces without bark or other prohibitive features, multi-level play structures and inclusive educational programs.
“I believe fully that this project is essential, and I also think COVID has really highlighted for everyone what it is like for many families with disabilities having to quarantine and live in isolation,” Mrs. Strong told the News-Press. “Something like a playground, for example, should be such a simple thing for every child, but when they’re not accessible, you feel left out and locked out of it.”
The inclusive playground’s features will include: a magical tree, sensory swings, interactive innovation to normal equipment, a hillside slide, sensory spinning and climbing structures, an art mural, an inclusive library, musical features, a picnic and party zone and friendship benches.
“This really came about when we would take daily walks with our daughter when she was a baby and realized just trying to get her wheelchair through bark is impossible,” Gwendolyn’s mother said. “We had a magical life with Gwendolyn here — she was very accepted, loved and treated with respect everywhere we went, but she couldn’t play with her friends.”
Gwendolyn was non verbal and communicated mostly with her eyes. She also used a breathing machine and a stroller/wheelchair to help her sit up.
Mrs. Strong said she explained Gwendolyn’s unique differences to her class at school to help them understand Gwendolyn’s condition and meet them where they were at.
“Kids are curious and always have questions,” she said. “So we explained everything, and the beautiful thing about children is they then move on. Within a week, those children were watching me and the way I communicated with her and they were communicating with her.
“She had deep, meaningful friendships with the children. They’d fight over who got to be her partner or hold her hand at recess.”
Gwendolyn’s mother said the kids rose to the occasion, and stood up for Gwendolyn when the school would hold events that she couldn’t participate in, such as a jog-a-thon or certain P.E. games. After her death, the kids donated their sixth grade graduation to Gwendolyn, giving speeches about their memories with her.
“It was just extraordinary to witness that those friendships had no limitations,” Mrs. Strong said. “What I saw was that these children had been profoundly impacted by their relationships and they didn’t talk about their friendship with sadness or with pity even though she had died — they talked about their friendship with love, respect and gratitude.
“Really, that’s what this playground is about.”
Mrs. Strong believes the playground, which aims to include individuals of all ages with abilities of all kinds, will provide not only a way for those individuals to blossom, but also open the eyes of their peers and create more empathy.
“All kids are so amazing. They get it,” she said. “They’re so equitable, so when you say that some children literally can’t play at a playground, they immediately stand up and say, ‘That’s not right.’”
The Foundation is faced with $5 million more to raise for the playground’s construction, and had to cancel all of its in-person fundraising events when COVID-19 hit. The Foundation sells Never Give Up merchandise on its website to continue raising money, but the majority of the funds come from donations.
“We were really able to make a big impact with small dollars,” Mrs. Strong said. “We’re seeing that again and that’s been such a wonderful thing because I really believe that while taking on a $5 million fundraiser is daunting, I believe that the process of fundraising is an opportunity to start educating about inclusion, acceptance and diversity.”
She added that many donors live out of state and even out of the country.
“There are so many families of children with disabilities or families who have lost their child who are supporting this effort that may never, ever see it, but they believe in it,” she said. “They believe that their child needs this space or had needed it.”
Mrs. Strong believes every playground should be inclusive, and hopes that with Gwendolyn’s Playground, she can accommodate individuals with vision or hearing impairments, autism or sensory disorders and seniors with dementia. To her, it’s not just about wheelchair accessibility.
“We hope to do what we did in Gwendolyn’s life, to have those talks that make people uncomfortable. Most adults want to say the right thing, but they get so uncomfortable that they shush their child and they don’t ask questions, which makes disabilities seem bad instead of saying, ‘It looks like they need help with their wheelchair,’” Mrs. Strong said. “I think it’s an opportunity to see this space as a really incredible asset to our community that adds value in creating true community spaces where everyone feels welcome.”
To learn more about Gwendolyn’s playground and/or donate, visit https://nevergiveup.org/playground/.