By CRISTINA JANNEY
The ARC of the Central Plains announced its goal of creating an accessible recreation complex in Hays during a Hays Area Chamber of Commerce event Friday.
The complex would include a playground, splash pad and baseball diamond.
The proposed $1.6 million project would be paid for through a fundraising campaign that will ramp up this fall, and the organizers hope to break ground on the first phase of the project by mid-2019. The first phase would be the playground, then the ball diamond and then the splash pad. Start and completion of the project is contingent on fundraising.
The ARC is working with the city parks department on the project and will likely present to the city commission in the coming weeks. They are suggesting two locations for the park—one at Aubel Bickle Park and the other at Seven Hills-Optimist Park, which is in northwest Hays. Seven Hills is the ARC’s preferred location. It already has a shelter house and bathrooms. However, they do not know if parking would need to be added. The current park only has on-street parking.
No tax dollars will go toward this project. The ARC has set up a separate fund for its fundraising efforts for the project under its non-profit status. The group developing the park hopes to eventually gift the park to the city of Hays when it is completed.
The cost quoted for the park includes a turnkey facility. This includes landscaping, cost of equipment and labor.
Sarah Meitner of the Northwest Kansas Down Syndrome Society and mother of 4-year-old Abe who has Down syndrome, has been a champion of the project.
When Abe was a toddler, his physical abilities mirrored those of his peers. However, now Abe, who has hypotonia, has difficulty moving his muscles. His brain sends signals to his muscles about how and when to move, but sometimes those signals are delayed or he retains stiffness. He does not have the core strength to climb and swing like his peers.
“What we would like to create is something that he could explore independently and feel that sense of empowerment while doing so and play collaboratively with his siblings or with other kids who are there,” Meitner said. “They won’t necessarily notice that he is a little bit slower and he is jumping a little bit lower.”
Abe is not alone. There are about 1,400 people with disabilities in the community who could also use this park.
“The impact of play is not just for fun,” Meitner said. “The impact for [Abe] when he plays, it is gross motor skill development, it’s cognition development, it’s fine motor [development] and therapy uses. There are really a host of benefits that can make this even more important.”
The recreation complex would be the only one of its kind in western Kansas and on the Interstate 70 corridor between Kansas City and Denver. Brent Kaiser, ARC director of activities, said he envisioned the park being a destination spot for people from all over the area who come to Hays to shop, do business and for recreation.
All the parks in Hays have wood or rubber chips, which are considered ADA compliant, but Meitner noted they can be difficult for people who use wheelchairs or walkers or who have limited mobility to maneuver in. The playground will have a rubber pad. The ball diamond will have turf with bases level with the ground to prevent tripping hazards for people with limited mobility.
Last year, the ARC started a co-ed softball team, but Kaiser said some ARC participants can’t play because of the uneven fields. The choice was made to use turf so all players in the community could use the space for games and practices.
“I would like to reach as many people as possible in this community, and an inclusive baseball field would be a big part of that,” Kaiser said.
The recreation complex would not only have accessible surfaces, it would have ramps, shaded areas, sensory elements and a shaded quieter area for children who have autism and may be easily over stimulated by sound and bright lights.
“We want to reiterate this complex is not just for children and adults with disabilities,” Meitner said. “This is for children and adults with all abilities, so they can play together. We don’t want anyone to feel excluded. We don’t want whoever in their house to say, ‘We don’t need a park for those people with disabilities.’ That is not it. This is bringing something new and exciting to our community for the whole community.”
The group is looking at using an ag and oil theme in the park to promote Hays. Kaiser talked about some of the features the group is seeking to install in the park. Some possibilities include slides with rollers and overhead hand holds to allow someone to slide without friction, a disabled accessible merry-go-round, monkey bars that are height accessible for people in wheelchairs and various types of swings for people with physical limitations.
Kaiser showed three types of swings: a harness swing, a disc swing in which someone can lie down, and a face-to-face swing. The group is shying away from wheelchair swings, because people can be injured if they are hit with the swing, and they can be pinching hazards.
Other features will generate light or music.
Various features can be built side by side with features for able-bodied peers, such as monkey bars or swings. Side-by-side play has been found beneficial to children with disabilities, Kaiser said.
The splash pad will use recirculated water to preserve water resources.
Any amount will be taken as a donation for the recreation complex. However, sponsorship opportunities are available. They start at $500 and go up from there. The ARC will also be seeking letters of support for the rec complex to submit as they apply for grants and go before the Hays City Commission for approval.