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A mother’s dream becomes reality with inclusive playground

WAILUA — Shana Marie Cruz grew up playing at the Kamalani Playground at Lydgate Park.

It hasn’t changed much since she was a kid. It’s still a maze of slides, wooden bridges and wonder, with twists and turns and lots of places for kids to run, climb and hide.

When Cruz became a mother, she started taking her own kids to the park, but quickly realized that the playground she loved playing on as a kid was just not ideal for her family.

“(The park) is sensory overload,” Cruz said. “It’s too much, and my kids don’t have enough space.”

Two of Cruz’s four children are diagnosed with autism. One of them particularly struggles with being in tight spaces with other kids.

“It’s rough. I’m always the helicopter mom when we’re out,” said Cruz.

When her two older kids were beginning elementary school, Cruz knew that her kids were not the only ones who didn’t have a recreational space that meets their needs. She saw a video about an inclusive park in Oregon. The video lit a fire in her, as she began trying to bring a similar park to Kaua’i.

“We do have a lot of special-needs children on Kaua‘i, and to better their quality of life, why not be outdoors and doing something interactive with their family?” Cruz said. “Most times, special-needs parents, they’re bound to be home because they don’t feel that welcoming or inclusiveness.”

In 2019, Cruz led a parent-support group called Be the Voice.

On Feb. 8, 2019, the group met with Mayor Derek Kawakami and suggested a space be built to provide recreational activities for children and adults of all abilities.

Kawakami took the project on and made it one of his top priorities.

“When I met a group of mothers of children with autism and learned that there are no playgrounds on this island tailored for children with special needs, that was simply unacceptable,” Kawakami said. “Our parks should be a place that everyone can enjoy.”

After years of planning and collaboration, the project broke ground last month.

The playground design addresses physical, social, emotional, sensory, communication and cognitive activities children with developmental disabilities encounter. Additionally, the playground will include swinging, spinning, sliding, climbing and balancing equipment.

Inspired Play LLC won the contract for the $400,000 project allocated from various county funds.

On Thursday evening, Cruz’s four children played at Kamalani Playground. She looked eagerly toward the roped-off area where the new inclusive playground will be.

“It’s not only for the special-needs community, but for everyone, for all to come together,” she said. “That’s what Kaua‘i is all about. We come together and we rise.”

The estimated completion date of the playground is spring 2022.

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Laurel Smith, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0424 or lsmith@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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