Ten-year-old Sydney Gustafson of Woodbury has been using a wheelchair since she was about 2, so whenever her friends run toward the jungle gym, she can't cross the sandy playground to join them.
"I wish I could drive high," she used to tell her mom, Diane Gustafson. But most playgrounds aren't built for wheelchairs.
Sydney, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy two weeks before her first birthday, and other children with disabilities can finally join the fun when the metro area's first all-inclusive, handicap-accessible playground, called Madison's Place, is built in Woodbury next summer.
"A lot of the parks are sand ... and wood chips are still hard for kids in wheelchairs to use," Diane Gustafson said. With Madison's Place, which will include ramps and rubber surfacing, "[her friends] can run in front and she can follow them," she said.
The 15,000-square-foot playground, designed with help from the Rehabilitation Services team of the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital, will have stainless steel slides to prevent interference with hearing aids from static caused by friction on plastic slides. It will have platforms for kids to develop balance, basketball hoops at a lower height and a large wheelchair-accessible structure that resembles a swing.
With city approval, the playground will be lime green, purple and orange, colors chosen by kids at the children's hospital, and be built at a city-donated site near Bielenberg Sports Center in Woodbury. It will be near Miracle Field, a baseball diamond also made for children with disabilities that opened with a celebration on June 7.
The playground was envisioned and will be funded by the Madison Claire Foundation, which is named after the daughter of its founder, Dana Millington of Woodbury. She also is a friend of the Gustafson's.
Madison was born on May 16, 2002, with Type 1 spinal muscular atrophy and was expected to live less than a year. The genetic disease made her muscles weak and her respiratory system sometimes go into arrest. She was wheelchair-bound and often stayed in the hospital for weeks -- sometimes a month -- at a time.
Millington said she usually had to stay with Madison on the sidelines while her son Harrison and her daughter Grace, now 14 and 12, played on the jungle gym.
"When we had Madison," Millington said, "There really wasn't anything out there that we could do together as a family. I tried to take them to the park one time and I couldn't get Madison up anywhere."
Madison died Aug. 17, 2004. About that time, Millington said her husband Dave's friends pooled money and told him to do whatever he wanted with it. The Millingtons decided to start the foundation in Madison's memory.
When Dana Millington heard about a universally accessible playground in California, she knew that was the project she wanted.
One in six Minnesotans have some type of disability, Millington said. "There's a lot of people out there, you just don't see it all the time because there isn't a place for them to gather," she said. "[Madison's Place] will be a place to play, to gather, for exercise."
With donations and fundraisers, the foundation is still about $300,000 short of the estimated $1 million needed to build the playground.
Millington said she and her family, including her 5-year-old daughter Emerson who talks about Madison although she never met her, are looking forward to seeing the finished playground.
"I hope to see it filled," Millington said. "[I hope to see] kids like Sydney, to see her smile to be able to get up and play with all her friends. ... For some of these kids it will be their very first experience. And to be able to see parents who are disabled play with their kids. [I hope] to see that whole circle come together."
The site for Madison's Place is a little farther south than the current park at Bielenberg, which will disappear in a $15.5 million expansion on the center headed for approval this fall, said Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stevens. Building the playground near Bielenberg, which already draws people from around the region, will make it "accessible to others outside the community," she said.
And she's excited to make Madison's Place part of Woodbury.
"It gives access to those kids that rely on equipment for body movement," the mayor said. "It's a playground for everybody ... kids with or without disabilities can play on that."
Kaitlyn Walsh is a Twin Cities freelance writer.