Bremerton's new accessible playground gives everybody a chance to play

Cougar Valley Elementary classmates Michael Czarnik, left, and Gabe Uhtoff have a blast together aboard an upscale teeter-totter at Bremerton
Cougar Valley Elementary classmates Michael Czarnik, left, and Gabe Uhtoff have a blast together aboard an upscale teeter-totter at Bremerton's Beyond Accessible Playground on Sunday, Aug. 24.
— image credit: Kevan Moore/staff photo

Gabe Uhtoff is non-verbal and faces fine motor skills challenges, but his body language and beaming smile this past Sunday at Bremerton's Beyond Accessible Playground said it all: the new playground is truly a place where all may play.

Whether he was cruising down a roller slide or sharing some time with his Cougar Valley Elementary classmate Michael Czarnik on an upscale teeter-totter, it was clear that Gabe was having a blast.

The park includes a two-sided communication panel with various pictures representing different activities, something that Gabe and other special needs kids are used to seeing at home and in school. At one point on Sunday afternoon, Gabe pointed to one of the panels indicating he wanted to sit in the grass. Other choices could have allowed him to spin, swing, roll, see-saw, get a drink and more. But, for whatever reason, at that moment in the blazing sun, Gabe just wanted to chill for a bit in the soft, artificial grass.

But Gabe's mom, Rebekah Uhtoff, who along with April Mills and others involved with Bremerton Beyond Accessible Play have spent years making the playground a reality, didn't take too many breaks on Sunday. She was too busy showing off all of the amenities of the new playground and accepting thank-you's from just about everyone that came out for the soft-opening.

"It truly takes villages upon villages upon villages to raise children with special needs," Rebekah said. "We've taken down all the physical barriers by taking down the old playground, now we need to take down all of the social ones. We want to get to the point where people won't blink when they see a child in a wheelchair or one that is on crutches."

"Doublewide" ramps on the elevated play structure are wide enough for a wheelchair and then some. Ledges, water fountains, and other structures are also designed with wheelchairs in mind.

"These things will save my back and give kids the independence they so desperately crave," Rebekah said.

Even the park benches on the perimeter of the play area, are designed with enough room for a wheelchair to fit right next to them.

"This is one of the things I've really been looking forward to, is sitting on a park bench like all the other moms and dads while my child plays with his brother," Rebekah said.

Uhtoff and others are hoping that new playground will allow all children to grow up to be more compassionate. Research shows that if children interact with and get to know other children with disabilities by the time they are nine years old or enter the third grade, they will be more accepting and understanding of people with disabilities for the rest of their lives.

"A disability doesn't mean you can't do something, it just means you can do something differently and there's nothing wrong with that," Rebekah said.

The soft-opening was designed to be sensory friendly and allow kids with special needs a chance to explore and learn about the new playground at their own pace. By the end of the day, though, the chain-link fence would come down and anyone and everyone could check it out.

An official grand-opening celebration for the new playground is slated for 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 13.

"We're just so thankful to all the volunteers that came out on our four big volunteer Saturdays, especially on (July 12) when we had more than 90 people on a 90-degrees-plus day," Rebekah said.

In addition to a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m., a community resource fair will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. that day. The fair will give playground sponsors and partners a chance to network with the community. There will also be kid friendly activities at each of the tables during the fair.

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