[Updated on March 16, 2021]
Deborah Nickerson loves watching her son Justin, sixteen, whirl through the air with no cares or worries on the swings at PARK365 in Richmond. “He could swing for hours on end. He loves the park,” she says, adding that her daughter, 22-year-old Ashley, “loves the wheelchair swing.”
Both Justin and Ashley, who are adopted, have several significant disabilities. Happy and very social, Ashley is deaf and blind. She also has a seizure disorder and an intellectual disability. Justin has various disabilities that include autism. “He had spent three years in an institution before I adopted him,” says Nickerson, who has a total of six children, four with significant disabilities.
PARK365 is a wonderful escape for her family. “Many weekends, we get all the kids together and go to the park,” Nickerson says. “Justin likes to feel the sensory wall there, and so does Ashley. The park is a nice place to have.”
The park is intended for all kids and families, not just children with disabilities. And that’s an aspect Nickerson appreciates. It gives her children a social outlet “they would never have otherwise,” she says.
The park is the brainchild of SOAR365 a nonprofit organization that provides services and programs to people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, helping them live happy, successful, and meaningful lives.
Each year, SOAR365 helps more than 1,400 individuals with disabilities. Programs include infant and child development services for children from birth through adolescence who are at risk for developmental delays, have delays in development or a developmental disability, or suffer from an injury that affects their development. SOAR365’s after-school and day-support services help adults and students with developmental disabilities become more independent, build self-confidence, and engage in therapeutic recreation and social activities. The organization’s employment services help people find jobs in community businesses. Camp Baker provides a traditional camp experience for children ages six through adult, combined with respite for families and caregivers. The camp is a barrier-free, fully accessible facility for individuals with disabilities situated on twenty-two wooded acres near Pocahontas State Park in southern Chesterfield County.
Build It and They Will Come!
The idea for the inclusive park emerged when SOAR365 was building its own center on Saunders Avenue. Families using services saw the 2.4 acres around the building, and began inquiring about the future of the land. “They came to us and said ‘Here’s what we would like,’” says Kim Watson, SOAR365’s vice president of development and communications. “They were pretty adamant about what they wanted.”
The organization started holding focus groups in 2009, and learned that parents wanted a park “where the whole family could come,” Watson says. “They didn’t want to split up the siblings, and they wanted a park where kids with disabilities could have fun, try out new things, and still be safe.” One of the parents in the focus group made it clear that the group didn’t want a park only for children with disabilities. She explained that she wanted her children to socialize with children who didn’t have disabilities because she believed both groups would benefit from the experience. “Parents also told us they wanted a park that kids don’t grow out of,” Watson says. “We have 30-year-olds [with disabilities] who are still living with their parents, and they need those opportunities, too.”
While the sign at the entrance to the PARK365 reads All Ages, All Abilities, Mechanicsville mom Kyle King says there is another important reason she appreciates this play facility for families. “I like that we can be surrounded by all kinds of families – kids and adults with and without disabilities play side-by-side – and I also want the kids to see diverse faces when they are playing. The diversity component is very important to me.” A mom of two boys, ages four and two, King’s children have not been diagnosed with any disabilities. When she relocated to Richmond from Northern Virginia with her family two years ago, she discovered the PARK365 – which had opened in August 2015. King, who teaches elementary school in Chesterfield County, likes that the PARK365 is located in the City of Richmond, and that it draws from all over the region. “Moving from the DC area, I’m sure there were parks there with this kind of equipment, but I can’t remember anything as inclusive and nicely done,” said King. “It’s a fabulous facility!”
Angela Brooks, grandmother of 5-year-old Tai’Vonne, who participates in speech therapy at SOAR365, brings the youngster to the park to burn up some of his energy. “He likes going there,” she says. “He likes the water features and the clubhouse, and he likes to climb and run loose.” She appreciates the fact that the park is all-inclusive because “it introduces Tai’Vonne to being social with other kids,” she says. “I like that it’s open to the public. We don’t have a lot of playgrounds in this area, and this one is excellent.”
Opened in 2015 as ARCpark, PARK365 was designed based on feedback from SOAR365’s clients, their families and caregivers, occupational and physical therapists, and special educators. The group also studied research regarding the needs of people with developmental disabilities. When it opened, it was the first handicapped-accessible park in Virginia.
“When we were building the park, a mom told us she has two kids with disabilities, both in wheelchairs,” Watson recalls. “She is petite. She told us when you get to the park, you have to take care of the personal needs of your children. She was adamant when she asked for a family restroom that is handicapped-accessible and a changing table for kids and adult children.” The park was designed to meet that parent’s needs – and the needs of many other families – with accessible pathways that are wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass and rubber safety surfaces. It also has charging stations for electric wheelchairs, a tree house with a ramp to the top that is wide enough for walkers, and other adaptive equipment, misting stations, and play and fitness equipment for persons of all ages and abilities, including a glider that can accommodate a wheelchair.
Every part of the park was “a significant decision in terms of selection and placement of the component,” says Cara Coffman, director of SOAR365’s infant and child development services, noting that some components are stimulating, while others are calming, educational, or therapeutic. In the landscape, all of the trees and plants were planted to stimulate the senses.
“They were purposely chosen for their colors and aroma,” says Coffman. One of the park’s most innovative features is a custom-built sensory wall with a kaleidoscope panel and fossil and animal reliefs, along with talk tubes to foster touch, hearing, vision, and fine motor skills, particularly
beneficial for people with autism and sensory processing disorders. Oversized disc swings are a popular go-to for kids of all sizes. “They are easy to sit on, lay on, and stand on,” Watson says. “More than one kid can get on it. Swinging helps kids with disabilities to be calmer and more relaxed for other activities.”
When Ideas Become Realities
The treehouse in the park, made from an 8,000-pound eucalyptus tree stump from a reclaimed California forest, has a wheelchair ramp, making it accessible to everyone who comes to the park. The idea for the treehouse was born from a conversation with a man who has worked in SOAR365’s production facility for over thirty years. He has a developmental disability and uses a wheelchair. “He told us, ‘I just want to be able to look down on people, so you can build me a treehouse,” says Watson, explaining that the man is always looking up at people from his wheelchair. “I had two thoughts when he said that. First, how cool was it that we were listening to people who would use the facility, and secondly, how cool that a person in a wheelchair can go beyond the boundaries of his wheelchair.”
The park has three playgrounds for different ages. A fitness loop in the rear of the park provides stationary cycles for working out arms and legs (arm cycles for those in wheelchairs to build upper body strength). It also has three height levels of chin-up bars, two levels of wheelchair height parallel bars, adaptable exercise equipment, and a half-size basketball court.
Visitors will also find a greenhouse for year-round recreational gardening and a center play area with slides, a bridge, and a small tunnel. The pavilion in the park can be rented out to groups. A year after it was built, it had already seen thirty school groups and 125 private parties. Last month, SOAR365 hosted free community events for families, featuring the Richmond Symphony instrument petting zoo, arts and crafts stations from the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, and others.
Visitors from Near and Far
The park’s visitors include local families as well as families from throughout Virginia, and along the East Coast. “It has become a destination for people visiting Richmond,” Watson says, adding that it’s a popular destination during the Special Olympics in Richmond. Visitors have come from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Florida. “The ARCpark [previous name for PARK365] has proven to be of great benefit to the families we serve, as well as to the community in general. And the fact that we are also attracting visitors from outside the state is an added bonus and a significant contribution to our city.”
This landmark, all-inclusive park was funded by a combination of private donations and community grants secured by SOAR365. “There is a misconception that the park is owned by the city,” Watson says. “But it’s a private park that is owned by ARC [previously name for SOAR365]. We chose to open it up to the public and invite the public to visit us.”
Since it opened, the park has become a haven for parents, Watson adds. “One man who brings his kids to the park told me that if there is a park in heaven, he could imagine it would be the ARCpark [previous name for PARK365].”
Photos: Loren Rosado, Robb Scharetga, Rexford Studios