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Jefferson Award Winner Creates A Playground To Include Kids Of All Abilities

PALO ALTO (KPIX 5) When Olenka Villarreal would take her two daughters to the park in Palo Alto, it used to be an exercise in frustration. Daughter Ava has special needs and parks were not a welcoming place.

"What I quickly found was that the playgrounds didn't have a swing where she could actually be supported," Villarreal remembered.

Even climbing structures had dangerously wide openings. Staircases were too narrow for mom to climb alongside a child, and slides not wide enough for two.  Between the tan bark and curbs, the playground wasn't much fun.

"That's when this epiphany hit me!" Villarreal explained. "There's Ava, but there are a lot of kids like Ava, and where are they going to play?"

Of the 34 parks in Palo Alto, Villarreal couldn't find one that was truly accessible for her daughter, so she set out to literally level the playing field.

After five years of hard work and $3,000,000 raised, she has finally broken ground on The Magical Bridge Playground.

Former Mayor of Palo Alto Joe Simitian says Villarreal showed her community just what was missing.

"We tend to think of disability issues in terms of wheelchair ramps and that's about it," Simitian said. "And it's far, far more than that!"

Located on donated land in a corner of Mitchell Park, Magical Bridge Playground will have a swinging and sway zone featuring supportive bucket seats, an interactive light and sound sculpture created with autistic children in mind,  three specially designed slides, and a spinning zone where wheelchairs can go on for the ride.

"Get ready for a pretty awesome park!" Villarreal told children gathered at the ground-breaking ceremony.

A young man using an electronic voice device responded, "Thank you for making this happen. You are awesome. I can't wait to swing."

Wile she didn't set out to tackle a five-year project, Villarreal says she's been inspired by the wonderful people she's met, and hopes this park will be replicated nationwide.

"I'm not a playground designer," she stressed. "I'm not a playground expert. But with the help of the community, we had an idea, we took it to this great city, they listened, they supported us, and made it happen."

So for creating a truly inclusive park for children of all ages in her community, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Olenka Villarreal.

Note: The Magical Bridge Playground is scheduled to be complete this fall. Olenka has nothing but praise for the very generous donors who have shared her vision and made it possible.  She still hopes to raise $300,000 to complete the park. If you'd like to contribute, click here to connect with the project.

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