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One for all: Cottage Grove celebrates opening of inclusive playground

Lloyd Busch of Cottage Grove pushes son Joey, 25, at the Sept. 26 opening of the inclusive playground at Woodridge Park. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 5
Matthew Mueller, 13, of Cottage Grove checks out the Woodridge Park Inclusive Playground at the Sept. 26 ribbon cutting. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 5
Easton Crabtree, 5, ascends a climber at the Sept. 26 opening of the inclusive playground at Woodridge Park in Cottage Grove. Easton is the son of Samanthia Crabtree, who served on the park's citizen task force. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 5
Parks & Recreation Supervisor Molly Pietruszewski high-fives Pat Forsythe of the Cottage Grove Lions Club at the Sept. 26 ribbon cutting at the inclusive playground at Woodbridge Park. Molly Hagness and Barb Mueller (left) served on the park's citizen task force. At right are Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey, Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham, Parks & Recreation Director Zac Dockter and Councilman Steve Dennis. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 5
Sam Plante, 2, of Woodbury goes belly first down a slide during the Sept. 26 opening of the inclusive playground at Woodridge Park in Cottage Grove. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 5

They may own bragging rights as the city with the largest inclusive playground in Minnesota — a 21,500-square-foot climb and swing venue that accommodates able-bodied and disabled children alike.

But even should it be eclipsed by newer, larger facilities, the Woodridge Park Inclusive Playground will still represent the collective heart of Cottage Grove, whose residents, elected officials, city staff and business owners worked four years to bring it into being.

Hundreds of businesses and private citizens dug into their pockets to donate nearly half of the park's $850,000 cost, Mayor Myron Bailey said at the Sept. 26 ribbon cutting. Citizens also contributed time and sweat equity when they assembled some playground equipment at a community build in July. Local businesses donated labor.

"We want Cottage Grove to be a recreation destination," Bailey said. "Now that we have the largest inclusive playground in the state, that's another feather in our cap."

The Woodridge Park Inclusive Playground includes six zones of playground equipment, three sensory gardens, 10 swings, three accessible cruisers, sand and water play area and musical instruments.

One ride, the Sway Fun, allows wheelchair users to a glider that lets children in wheelchairs roll their rig right up onto the cockpit for a spin. In keeping with the inclusive format, able-bodied children can ride along, too. The playground also features a climbing wall, Rollerslide, Gemini Slidewinder and Double Wave Slide.

A crowd of nearly 250 cheered as Lions Club member Patrick Forsythe cut the ribbon, with assistance from Parks and Recreation Supervisor Molly Pietruszewski.

"The fundraising portion probably consumed about a year and a half of the project," said Pietruszewski, who chaired an eight-member volunteer task force who promoted the project to businesses and residents.

"Some were $25,000 donations, but we worked just as hard for a $25 donation," she said. In May, the Lions Club International Foundation donated $100,000. Without this donation, some of the pieces would have to be left out until additional funding was available.

Additional funding came from a $100,000 Outdoor Recreation Grant Program award from the Department of Natural Resources and a $17,687 donation from Thrivent Financial.

In 2013, Pietruszewski and Parks and Recreation Director Zac Dockter gave a Powerpoint presentation to City Council after they attended a conference to learn more about inclusive parks.

"There wasn't a lot of information out there," Dockter said.

While public facilities must be wheelchair accessible as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act, inclusive parks are designed to bring children of all ages and abilities together.

"Accessibility is just a physical requirement," Dockter said. "We also wanted to include the cognitive and social side of things."

The inclusive playground might also be used by disabled military veterans, he added.

The park's neutral colors are designed to blend with nature so as not to overwhelm children with autism or other disorders that make them prone to overstimulation. A group of green igloo-like structures called cozy domes are located at the edge of the playground. Any child who feels apprehensive or overwhelmed can crawl inside and chill.

Lloyd Busch beamed as he pushed his son Joey, on the Assisted ZipKrooz, which resembles a zip line. Joey, 25, is developmentally disabled.

"This is fantastic for him," his father said. "They did such a great job with this.

"My kids grew up at this park," he added.

Task force member Samanthia Crabtree said it's nice that the project is complete.

"We've been looking at pictures for four years," she said.

Task force member Barb Mueller attended with husband Joe and sons Matthew, 13, and Bert, 17.

"I'm ecstatic," she said.

Before Woodridge opened, she said had to drive her sons to the Universal Park in Red Wing, because that was the only place with a rubberized surface that allowed Matthew, who has spina bifida, to roll his wheelchair right up to the climbers or swings.

"The other parks all had wood chips or gravel," she said.

Another consideration that most people don't think about are the specific heights of each attraction, said Joe Mueller, who uses a wheelchair and gave planners input on the park design.

"Everything needs to be at a height so you can transfer from the wheelchair to get on whatever you will be dealing with," he said.

His son's assessment of the new park?

"It's pretty cool. Pretty accessible," Matthew Mueller said.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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