Gibson City playground improved with handicapped-accessible features

GIBSON CITY — Just a few years ago, the playground at Gibson City’s North Park lacked variety. There was a merry-go-round, some old belt swings, a few rocking horses and a cabin-like structure.

It wasn’t easily accessible for handicapped children, either. The playground equipment was surrounded by pea gravel, making it difficult to move a wheelchair, a stroller or anything with wheels through.

Then came an aggressive fundraising campaign by the Gibson City Rotary Club, which ended up raising more than $200,000 in donations toward improving the playground over a five-year span to give it more appeal and make it more inclusive and safer for children of all physical abilities.

Sunday marked the culmination of those efforts, as the club held an open house that afternoon at the park to show off the new playground to the community. A few weeks earlier, the club installed the last of the new playground pieces that have given the park on the city’s north side a new look and feel — literally.

“Every time you drive by the park and see all of these kids playing on the new playground, it’s pretty impressive just to know that so many kids in the community have gotten to enjoy this equipment,” said Janna Friday, the Rotary Club’s president.

“The number of kids who come up here to play with their parents has grown exponentially,” added Rotarian Tom Davis. “I mean, anytime you come up here now, there’s kids up here playing and having a good time.”

The first phase of the playground-improvement project was completed three years ago, involving the replacement of several old playground structures on the playground’s east side and the installation of a soft, rubber-like surface on the ground around the equipment. That phase cost more than $100,000.

The second phase was completed in recent weeks, costing about the same amount as the first. It involved installing new equipment on the playground’s west side — including a slide, a couple of teeter horses and some new swings and gliders — as well as the same type of soft-surface material that had been used previously on the east side. Also installed was concrete pavement in an area to the southwest of the playground, where picnic tables and an awning were also added to give parents and grandparents a relaxing place to sit.

Susie Tongate, a former president of the Rotary Club who now serves as its fundraising chairman, said that when the first phase of the playground project was completed in September 2015, it was deemed such a success that the club immediately decided to upgrade the remaining portion of the playground.

The second phase is not a replication of the first. The play pieces in the second phase are geared toward kids ages 5 to 12, while the first phase’s are geared toward children ages 2 to 5, Davis said.

“We wanted to have a fairly wide variety of things they could play on,” Davis said.

“It’s brought a lot of traffic to the city and a lot of recognition to the park area,” Tongate added.

Tongate said the idea to improve the playground was suggested by Rotarian James “Doc” Meyer, whose daughter had special needs.

“When we were looking for a project to do in Gibson City, it came to our attention that this park was not very inclusive of kids in need,” Tongate said. “This (improved playground) reaches out to kids of physical disabilities, and some of the equipment here is for kids on the autism spectrum, too.”

“The playground we had before, it was like that gravel over there,” said Rotarian Larry Littlefield, pointing to a play structure with pea gravel around it located to the north of the improved playground. “You couldn’t run a bicycle, a wheelchair, a baby carriage or anything across it. But here, you can bring (a wheeled device) right out onto (the surface) and all the kids can play on (the equipment).

“This is just so much safer and easier. You can walk right onto it.”

All of the new playground equipment was purchased from NuToys.

“Rotarians Gene and Sue Everett were a huge part of this project,” Tongate said. “Gene was the main organizer and the contact who worked with NuToys and the overall organization of the entire project.”

The Rotary Club is now exploring options for its next project, Tongate said. Ideas being considered are the resurfacing of the basketball court at the North Park, which Tongate said gets “a lot of use,” and the addition of wheelchair-accessible tables at the park.

“As far as community, there’s always something you can add to,” Davis said.

Rotarians praised the help of workers from the city in getting the new playground built. They also said they appreciated all of the donations from individuals, organizations and businesses in the community, with Gibson Area Hospital highlighted as one of the biggest donors for the project.

“We just appreciate the community’s support and invite them to continue to use it and make good use of it,” Tongate said.

The Rotary Club continues to accept donations as it continues to research options for additional projects. Donations may be sent to: Gibson City Rotary Club, P.O. Box 103, Gibson City, IL 60936.

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