Accessible playground finally near reality

A rendering of the accessible playground to be built at Gideon Pond Elementary in Burnsville.

Structure will be at Gideon Pond Elementary

A lull in fundraising for a barrier-free playground at Gideon Pond Elementary had school Principal Chris Bellmont wondering if the project would ever take flight.

But a team of boosters wasn’t ready to lower its sights for the first wheelchair- and walker-friendly playground in Burnsville and School District 191.

“The team overwhelmingly pushed back on me — and I really appreciated it — and said, ‘No, we’re going to do this. We’ve had a couple of minor setbacks, but we’re going to move forward,’ ” Bellmont said.

The payoff is at hand. Contractors have set an Aug. 25 target date for finishing the playground structure, one of two at Gideon Pond. In any case, it is expected to be ready by Sept. 5, the first day of school.

“Finally. I’m very excited,” said parent and project booster Lisa Sardinha, whose daughter Victoria uses a walker and a wheelchair and is a student in the Intermediate School District 917 Deaf and Hard of Hearing Resource Program at Gideon Pond.

“She was in kindergarten when we started this passionately, so I’m very excited that she’s going to start second grade and have the opportunity to play with the other kids,” Sardinha said.

A $50,000 grant in June from U.S. Bank and the Minnesota Vikings provided a crucial boost. The fundraising goal is $120,000. The playground will have a colored rubber floor, which makes it many times more expensive than traditional playground structures.

Wood chips or mulch underneath most playground structures comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act but don’t comport with the needs of kids with wheels.

“The most expensive, unique part of the playground is going to be the flooring,” Sardinha said. “Most of the playgrounds in the area are wood chips, and you can’t push wheelchairs or walkers on wood chips. … The flooring is going to be the biggest asset to an all-inclusive, accessible playground.”

The playground will replace an aging structure the school distinct had slated for removal. The seeds of the barrier-free project were sown when Sardinha visited Victoria at summer school in 2015 and saw her and another child in a wheelchair sitting by the playground while other children used it.

There are about a dozen physically disabled children at Gideon Pond who will directly benefit from the playground, Sardinha said, but the school’s central Burnsville location on 130th Street will make the new structure a bigger draw.

“It’s been truly a community effort in a true community location,” Bellmont said. The school play area is “not just used by the (school) kids. It’s used seven days a week, all year long.”

After many hours of fundraising and planning, the fund drive stalled at around $60,000, he said. A previous application for a $50,000 Places to Play grant from U.S. Bank and the Vikings had been passed over.

“The committee decided to lower our ask to $20,000 just to try to get that momentum going,” Bellmont said.

This spring the school was informed that its second application was successful — with $30,000 added to the $20,000 request “to make sure this project got done,” Bellmont said.

The Burnsville Lions Club is also a major funder, donating $30,000. The school’s Parent-Teacher Organization has held Fun Runs to raise money. Donors also include District 191 and Intermediate District 917.

“It got a little frustrating,” Sardinha said, “but we hung in there and were able to make it happen.”