Special needs playground unlike any in Texas

HARLINGEN — A half-million-dollar playground so unique there’s not another like it in Texas could be open for kids as early as January.

The city’s Parks and Recreation advisory board yesterday approved plans for what is known as an all-inclusive playground designed specifically to allow children of all ages with special needs to join the fun.

The 125-foot by 100-foot playground will be located at Lon C. Hill Park, almost directly across Fair Park Boulevard from the Harlingen Municipal Auditorium.

It will be funded with a $425,000 grant from the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation and another $100,000 from Harlingen attorney Rollins M. Koppel.

The playground will be named in memory of Koppell’s wife as the Amalie L. (Amy) Koppell All-Inclusive Playground.

“There’s nothing, nothing like this,” said Bob Ahrens, president of Park Place Recreation Designs Inc. in San Antonio. Parks and recreation officials have been working with Ahrens for six months on the project, and he will purchase the components and install them.

“There are playgrounds that are focusing on more wheelchair accessibility, but nothing on this scale,” Ahrens added. “With the number of features — there’s no other playground I know of with this number of features in the state.”

The playground plans and construction still have to be approved by the City Commission, although since there are no taxpayer dollars involved, commissioners so far have been enthusiastic about the project.

If the commission approves when the project is presented Oct. 19, the playground could be up and running within three months, said Javier Mendez, parks and recreation department director.

The playground will be chock-full of mazes, platforms, slides, swings and more — and all of them will be handicapped-accessible, even the highest point of the 8-foot deck.

The plans also call for restrooms, which will be compliant with Americans With Disabilities Act regulations.

The restrooms will be locked when the park closes at night, Mendez said.

Another featured attraction at the playground is a merry-go-round. Not just any spinner, but one which is flush to the ground and has rails to allow kids in wheelchairs to safely ride.

“The definition of inclusive,” Ahrens said, “means everybody.”

The playground equipment will be manufactured to the city’s specifications by a company called Miracle Playground, which provided the equipment for a smaller but similarly themed play area just to the west of the planned Koppell area, Mendez said.

He said the company has offered to buy back the equipment located at the old playground and the city can apply those funds toward the new equipment.

Mendez said that in constructing the new playground, some trees will have to be removed, but the trees are “old ash trees that are rotted out.”

“We think it would be more of a liability to leave them there because they may fall one day,” Mendez said.

Miracle Playground and Ahrens recommended some changes in the initial playground plans to accommodate children who are autistic.

Mendez said the department also reached out to Miracle Kids of South Texas for advice on how best to construct a playground for kids who are somewhere on the autism spectrum.

One probable change, he said, would be jettisoning the bright candy-colored playground equipment in the blueprints for more subdued colors, which may be less likely to trigger an episode for children sensitive to bright colors, Mendez said.

In addition, the playground plans include quiet areas where a child can retreat if the stimulus starts to overwhelm him or her.

“You are right at the forefront of a very dynamic thing that you’re doing for the kids of your community,” Ahrens said, “really the families.”

Ahrens shared an anecdote from an earlier playground project with the board, saying that unless you have a special needs child, you can’t imagine the difficulties a family faces.

One parent related how even the small things took an emotional toll.

“They would purposely drive a few blocks out of the way so they didn’t see the park because it upset their child so much seeing it and knowing all he could do was get maybe on a sidewalk and get close, but not really in the middle of things, or play with other kids,” Ahrens said.

But that won’t be the case at Harlingen’s all-inclusive playground.

“Here, there’s things to do,” he said.