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Community's playground may rehabilitate neighborhood

| Monday, July 30, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Swingsets for wheelchairs and cheerful play centers could someday welcome children to a North Side neighborhood - and, neighbors hope, foster their own rehabilitation.

Among the first of its kind in the state, an open-access playground being planned for the California/Kirkbride neighborhood, would provide outdoor recreation for children with physical and mental disabilities, organizers said. Calling it a regional attraction, they also hope it can stimulate the local economy by drawing people into the neighborhood.

'Right now, it's a very blighted area with a lot of hopelessness,' said Debbie Reed, a member of California/Kirkbride Neighbors, who has been spearheading the project. 'The playground is a way to give people hope about a new beginning.'

As a so-called 'boundless' playground, the project would tap into a growing national trend to make playgrounds fully accessible for children with debilitating handicaps - not just meet minimal compliance requirements under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Everything - from swings to safety surfaces, which break a child's fall - gets designed with wheelchair access in mind.

Community residents figure the playground would cost at least $150,000 and they have received fund-raising help from the Pennsylvania Special Kids Network. The state agency does not provide direct grants, but it helps groups develop funding proposals and strategies.

Residents have identified a site for the park behind the Zone 1 police station on Brighton Road. The city and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh own the property but have not committed to letting it be used, Reed said.

Residents have talked with Mayor Tom Murphy and Councilman Sala Udin and hope to get at least some city funding in the 2002 budget.

'We are working very closely with the neighborhood and residents of California/Kirkbride to develop a plan for their neighborhood,' said Craig Kwiecinski, the mayor's spokesman. 'Included in that, we are working to build into that plan a playground facility.'

While the playground would give local children a recreation outlet, it also could be a regional attraction that helps stimulate the neighborhood's economic recovery, said Ilene Greenstone, director of community systems development with the Special Kids Network. Since few similar playgrounds exist, parents of disabled children tend to seek them out.

Typically, boundless playgrounds incorporate equipment that can be used by children with and without disabilities. Held by four chains, the swings have room to hold wheelchairs. Ramps are wide enough for wheelchairs, too, allowing children to roll over all the equipment. Safety surfaces, unlike wood chips and some rubber coverings, are smooth, too.

'Because there are so few resources like this, people travel from far around to bring their kids,' Greenstone said.

The Children's Institute operates a similar type of playground in Squirrel Hill. The agency uses the playground in rehabilitation exercises for disabled children and opens it to the public.

Children with disabilities interact with other children in a unique way, said Jeff Bisdee, manager of recreational therapy. The Institute has a 39-bed in-patient rehabilitation facility and a day school for 215 disabled children.

'It gives them a sense of normalcy in a way when they can actually participate with other kids without disabilities - just having that freedom to go out, have some fun and cruise around the playground,' Bisdee said.

Andrew Conte can be reached at aconte@tribweb.com or (412) 765-2312.

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