When the Blue Ridge Elementary School PTO decided to upgrade the school's 1980s-era treated-lumber playground, members agreed that the new equipment should benefit the entire community.
The school, which is upgrading the playground in three phases, is seeking funding to include equipment so children with special needs can play with their nondisabled classmates.
"The whole idea is to pull the groups together so they can experience having fun together," Principal Jeff Collman said.
The upgraded playground at the school, which has three special education programs for children who use wheelchairs, will feature wheelchair accessibility. The equipment also will benefit children such as rising fourth-grader Matthew Hofmeister, 9, who was born deaf and uses a cochlear implant to hear.
"It would really be the first one in Columbia County that would be fully accessible for all students with or without disabilities," said his father, John Hofmeister.
He said static electricity from plastic slides or tunnels causes his son's implant to malfunction.
Matthew said the new playground would be fun for everyone.
"It's nice because some people won't feel left out or sad or jealous," he said.
Collman said the playground will be accessible after school hours as well.
The upgrades include new swings and a sidewalk extension so an occupational therapist can push a child who uses a wheelchair to the playground. The swing design will enable children in wheelchairs to sit in their chairs in the swing or to use a transfer board to get them into a seat.
Swings with bench seats will allow a nondisabled child to sit side-by-side with a child who has limited mobility.
"Most kids will interact quite well between regular and special needs kids, and usually, it's the adults that take the second look," Hofmeister said.
"I think a fully accessible playground would kind of equal the playground for both groups."
The first phase of the project, which includes new swing sets and tire swings, has been completed.
"It will be hands-down, so much safer for all the kids because they're getting away from that treated wood," Hofmeister said.
A $5,000 grant from Lowe's got the fundraiser off the ground, Collman said, and the school also has secured $67,000 in local and state funding for the project. However, he said, the entire cost is $97,500.
"It's a lot of money, but it's worth every penny of it for what it's going to accomplish," Collman said.
Anyone who would like to contribute to the project can contact Collman at email@example.com or (706) 868-0894, or Hofmeister at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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