Building a Special Needs Playground

Accessible Playground

How one group funded its accessible playground project, making recess fun for all students at the school.

by Sarah Routh


At first glance, the playground at Valencia Elementary in Aptos, Calif., might look like any other: there are several slides, a small climbing wall, and plenty of platforms featuring wheels, cranks, bells, and other imaginative play prompts. But a second look reveals something truly special about the school’s new playground. The ramps connecting each platform, the tabletop play areas, and the lack of wood chips on the ground are just some of the unique features that make this playground accessible to kids of all abilities. And if you visit during recess you’ll see children with wheelchairs, walkers, and other support equipment playing alongside their peers.

Handicapped-accessible playgrounds like Valencia’s aren’t cheap—on average they can cost $100,000 to $200,000—and paying for the project required its backer, the Home and School Club, to more than quadruple the original budget for the playground. They tackled the higher price tag with a creative combination of strategies including running standard fundraisers, mining parent connections, and engaging in an extensive grantwriting campaign. This three-pronged approach helped the HSC fund the more than $130,000 project without exhausting the resources of school families and helped make recess meaningful for each of the school’s 550 students.

All the tools you need for a well-planned playground project

A New Idea

The group’s original playground plans were simple: with a budget of $26,000, the HSC intended to remove the old playground, and purchase and install traditional equipment. But as Kim De Serpa, the group’s site council chairwoman, and fellow parent Deardra Cline discussed the plans, the idea for a bigger, more inclusive playground began to take shape.

Valencia houses the district’s elementary special needs program, which serves about 20 students in two classrooms. Cline’s daughter Madelyn, a Valencia student, has Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder limiting movement and often requiring the use of a wheelchair. Cline suggested forgoing traditional play structures in favor of a universally accessible playground that kids like Madelyn and the whole school could enjoy together. With ramps, wheel- and walker-friendly rubberized groundcover, and other accessibility modifications, the playground would cost more, but, explains De Serpa, the community quickly embraced the idea of enabling all its students to play. “People at our school—including teachers, staff, and students—wanted something more than a regular playground; we wanted all of our kids to get up on this thing.”

Covering the Costs

Once the HSC committed to building an accessible playground, it needed to tackle funding the project. Covering the $100,000 price jump required the group to look beyond its usual revenue sources.

With profits from the group’s regular fundraisers (eScrip enrollment, the annual wrapping paper drive, tickets to the city’s fireworks show, and the raffle of a Toyota Prius donated by a car dealership) along with revenue from a dinner and auction event dedicated to funding the project, the HSC was able to donate $62,000 for the playground. The auction alone earned $40,000. Karin Kerber-Smith, HSC president, credits the unique mix of standard auction items and personal experiences, such as a surfing tutorial from a Valencia teacher, with the event’s success. Having both a live and silent auction also worked well, giving everyone a chance to participate.

Relying on parent expertise helped cut project costs. One family within the construction industry helped the group get concrete at a considerably reduced cost. Similarly, a parent with construction project management experience provided advice throughout the process, helping the HSC avoid pricey pitfalls and ensuring quality.

Looking for Grants

Even with the proceeds from the auction and other fundraisers and the help of parents with industry connections, the HSC still needed to raise more than $70,000 for the playground. To cover the gap, De Serpa undertook an ambitious grantwriting campaign. A social worker with experience writing grants, she applied for 26 on behalf of the HSC. After a year-long effort, the group was awarded $97,500 in funding through a combination of 15 local, regional, national, and even international grants. Businesses and local groups donated an additional $2,000.

While the campaign results are impressive, De Serpa says they’re not impossible to duplicate, no matter what your group’s project. With persistence, flexibility, and creativity, the HSC was able to attract a varied group of financial supporters. Many of the grants came from organizations supporting children with disabilities ($5,000 from the Safeway Foundation and $10,000 from the Dana and Christopher Reeve Foundation) or local recreation ($10,000 from Santa Cruz County Parks and Recreation), but many came from less likely companies ($1,000 from CVS Pharmacy). Looking for funding opportunities beyond obvious sources significantly deepened the pool for Valencia.

The HSC also got essential assistance from the National Center for Boundless Playgrounds. The organization certifies and facilitates installation of playgrounds like Valencia’s and even connects groups with interested donors and helps them navigate the grant application process. With their help, the parent group secured a $10,000 grant from Curam Software International. Partnering with a national organization can provide groups with technical support and help raise the profile of grant applications, De Serpa says.

The key to securing each of the grants, says De Serpa, was taking the time to research available funding and then carefully tailoring each application to meet specific requirements. She watched the local newspaper for stories about grants being awarded and then used those as leads for potential playground funders.

Finally, De Serpa encourages parent groups hoping to fund projects in tough economic times to think big. Choosing a goal beyond the ordinary, “one that tugs on [funders’] heartstrings” is vital to attracting donors. Tell potential donors exactly how their gift will impact the project and focus on creating personal relationships with funders. “[The importance of] making a connection with the decision makers in those organizations cannot be underestimated,” she says.

Whether it’s spent reaching the top of the climbing structure or discovering a ground level play area tucked underneath a tower, recess is different now for everyone at Valencia. Recess has gone from exclusive to inclusive, something that principal Dianna Higginbotham is especially excited about. “It’s heartwarming to see all of our children using and enjoying [it], removing barriers that previously existed,” says Higginbotham. “It brings a smile to my face.”

Grantwriting: Getting Started

“Grantwriting is not hard,” says Kim De Serpa. “It just takes time...researching available grants, determining eligibility, and figuring out who to contact.” Follow these steps to start applying for and receiving grants for your next big project.

Apply for 501(c)(3) status. Consider making your group a legally recognized nonprofit. While there is some initial expense to becoming a 501(c)(3) organization, it allows access to grant moneys reserved for nonprofits.

Make it official. Designate a grantwriting position on your board. “[It’s] a great job for a working parent who wants to contribute to their school’s organization because much of the research can be accomplished in the evenings after the kids are in bed,” De Serpa says.

Find funding. Look everywhere for leads on potential funders. Start online with grant websites. Also look for foundations funding similar projects nationwide. Consider everyone as a potential resource: community foundations, local philanthropists, school administrators, and elected officials might all connect you to potential grants.

Write it right. Create a template. Start with a goal statement and executive summary. Follow with details in clearly titled paragraphs. End with a positive, persuasive conclusion. Highlight how many students will benefit. Tweak your template to match individual funders. Successful applications are clear, focused, and personal; tell your group’s story and relate it to the funder’s vision.

Cop an attitude. Meet discouragement with an inner attitude of, “Oh yeah? Watch me!” This will energize you in the face of inevitable setbacks.

Be patient and persistent. Try to send four to five applications each month and expect to wait an average of five or six months for a response. Smaller local funders may respond quickly, while large national organizations can take 10 months or more.

Stay connected. Communicate with funders throughout your project. Show them exactly how their gift is helping. Dedicate a space on your website for project updates. Recognize your funders. Invite them to the dedication and put their name on a plaque.

Go public. Contact your local media. Ask your school’s media representative to write an article about your project. Always be ready to talk about it.

Originally posted in 2009 and updated regularly.


# Mark Pezzini 2009-10-08 03:33
I have to say that this is an amazing story and all the hard work and persistents paid off...
Great Work!

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