Breaking Ground 112 - Harvesting Inclusive Play: A Plan Takes Shape in ChattanoogaBy Bliss Welch, Southeast development district, Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities
For me, one of the greatest joys of being a mom has been experiencing the world through my daughter’s eyes. Over the years, I have accumulated countless memories of seeing Annabelle’s wonder and amazement as she discovered the world around her.
Unfortunately, as a wheelchair mobile mom, I have also seen the sadness, disappointment, and frustration when Annabelle realizes the lack of accessibility in the world around her. It’s heartbreaking for us both when the only option is for me to observe from the sidelines. I know that heartbreak is magnified for children who are wheelchair mobile and are forced to sit on the sidelines because of inaccessibility. Annabelle and I feel that accessibility and inclusion should be mandatory, not optional.
Several years ago, my friend Skyler Phillips asked me to join forces with him on his quest to build a universally inclusive playground in Chattanooga. Skyler is a captain and paramedic with the Chattanooga Fire Department and has devoted his entire adult life to public service. After his oldest son was diagnosed with autism, Skyler became a “dadvocate” (dad advocate) who is always seeking ways for the world to be more inclusive.
In 2017, the Phillips family traveled to Ohio to receive the necessary training to handle his son’s new service dog. During the training class, Skyler met another “dadvocate” and they began discussing various advocacy projects they had worked on in the past.
One project mentioned by the other “dadvocate” was an inclusive playground. That conversation planted the seed for Skyler, and he began researching the need for a universally inclusive playground in Chattanooga. During his research, he was brought to tears from an old interview with Little Miss Wheelchair Tennessee, Liberty Barnum. Her story told of the inaccessibility of playgrounds. When Liberty said, “There’s nothing I can really do, except sit,” Skyler knew he had to do something.
From that moment on, it became Skyler’s mission to ensure that no other child in the Chattanooga area would have to say those heartbreaking words again. While it was without a formal name on that day, Harvesting Inclusive Play was born.
I can still remember that phone call from Skyler five years ago when he asked me to help him figure out what to do and how to raise funds for a new playground. Skyler knew that during my year of reign as Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee 2013, I led several fundraising events. The money I raised that year wasn’t a drop in the bucket compared to the funds needed for the children in our community to have a spectacular, fully inclusive playground. But I knew this was a project I wanted to be a part of. While neither of us were experts on fundraising, we were VERY passionate about inclusion and accessibility for ALL individuals.
Over the course of the next two years, the Harvesting Inclusive Play (HIP) Committee was born. Initially, the committee consisted of a wheelchair-mobile parent and parents of children with a disability. Fellow Council on Developmental Disabilities member, Roddey Coe, was also one of the founding members of the HIP committee. We selected Jack Benson Heritage Park in Chattanooga as the site we wanted for the future playground.
When Skyler pitched the playground idea to Councilman Darren Ledford, he was instantly on board and said he had been looking for something to add to Heritage Park. The City of Chattanooga is partnering with us on this project and will provide various site updates to the park. The HIP Committee chose a farm-themed playground design as a nod to the original farm property. We considered designs from three different playground companies and ultimately finalized a deal with Play and Park Structures, a playground company headquartered in Chattanooga.
The HIP Committee needed to partner with an existing 501(c)3 public charity to oversee incoming donations for this project. When we presented the universally inclusive playground concept to the Kiwanis Club of Chattanooga, it fit with their mission and aligned perfectly with the work they were already doing in their playground project committee.
During the first two months of 2020, the HIP committee was busy finalizing plans to kick off our fundraising efforts at The Great Kiwanis Duck Race, an annual event in Chattanooga. By spring, all of our efforts came to a screeching halt because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. There was so much uncertainty during 2020 that we weren’t sure when or if we would be able to resume our plans for the playground.
So many obstacles have arisen since 2017. There have been numerous times we were ready to give up. But our driving force continues to be the children in our community who need an accessible, inclusive playground so children of ALL abilities can play together. The HIP committee has continued to work behind the scenes since the pandemic to ensure the completion of this project. Everything has finally fallen into place. The only remaining hurdle is raising the funds necessary to make this dream playground a reality for the children in our community.
In the famous words of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
If you would like more information about the Harvesting Inclusive Play project or to make a donation, please visit our website (https://www.harvestinginclusiveplay.com/) or our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/HarvestingInclusivePlay).
Bliss Welch was appointed by Gov. Bill Lee to represent the Southeast development district on the Council in 2022. Bliss became a self-advocate during her teen years when diagnosed with Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy 2B/R2. She and her 11-year-old daughter, Annabelle, live in Harrison, TN. Bliss works as an Accounts Specialist at Island Cove Marina & Resort. Two years ago, she launched ‘Inclusion is Bliss’, a social media-based way to share her triumphs and tragedies of living with a progressive form of muscular dystrophy. Bliss is passionate about changing the general population’s perception of individuals with disabilities. She believes awareness, education, and understanding are key elements that must be in place for change to continue. Bliss serves as the Chairwoman for the Harvesting Inclusive Play committee in Chattanooga.