A Place for All to Play

Tommy Bourgeois, 6, of Centreville plays on one of the many wheelchair-accessible playground structures in Clemyjontri Park in McLean.
Tommy Bourgeois, 6, of Centreville plays on one of the many wheelchair-accessible playground structures in Clemyjontri Park in McLean. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Arianne Aryanpur
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

It wasn't long after Ethan Pedlikin, 8, discovered the swings yesterday at Clemyjontri Park in McLean that he fell in love with them. With their high backs and supportive handlebars, they were unlike any he'd seen.

The swings were designed for disabled children such as Pedlikin, who has Down syndrome.

"You want to see smiles? Just look at him," said Adrianne Pedlikin of Vienna as her son soared overhead.

For the parents of disabled children, finding a place where their kids can play is a challenge. As Pedlikin explained, "You want your kids to do as many normal things as possible, but you take them to a regular park and set them up for failure."

Now those children have Clemyjontri Park, where hundreds of parents and children explored the new playground equipment for the first time at the park's dedication yesterday. The two-acre playground, which Fairfax County park officials say is the first of its kind in the area, opens Oct. 21.

"We've been to every park here in a 10-mile radius," said Howard Mortman of McLean, who came yesterday for a sneak peek with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Emily, who is not disabled. "But this is just tremendous. I've never seen anything like it."

Among the VIPs was 90-year-old Adele Lebowitz, who donated her 18-acre estate to the Fairfax County Park Authority in 2000. Lebowitz could have made millions by selling the prime property to a developer but decided to donate it with one condition: that the park be made accessible to disabled children as well as others.

"I've always been interested in children, and it seemed to me there should be a way that handicapped children should be able to feel less handicapped," she told The Washington Post in 2003. "I prefer to do that rather than leave it until after I'm dead."

Lebowitz, who was recognized yesterday for her contribution, also asked that the park be named for her children. Clemyjontri is derived from Carolyn (Cl), Emily (emy), John (jon) and Patrina (tri). Shortening names is a family tradition. Mortimer C. Lebowitz used part of his first name for the Morton's department store chain he founded in the Washington area that closed 13 years ago.

The rest of the property will be developed into public trails and gardens. And when Lebowitz dies, she will leave the family's 13-room home to park officials, who will turn it into a community center.

"Clearly, this could have been a housing development with $2 million to $3 million homes," said U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who spoke yesterday. "Instead we have a park accessible to all children."

On Georgetown Pike near Route 123, the park has specialized equipment tailored to disabled children: lowered monkey bars, rubber flooring instead of mulch, a 132-foot-long drag strip for wheelchairs and walkers and quiet spaces for autistic children. The park elements have lots of auditory and tactile features to assist the visually and hearing impaired.

If the screams and laughter were any indication, the park will be a children's paradise. There were tire swings, a hopscotch grid and a plastic rainbow fashioned out of poles for climbing and sliding. Nearby, Joe Phelps, 13, whizzed through the maze on his wheelchair. The boy, who has cerebral palsy, came from Burke to experience the attractions. His favorite? The swings, with handles to move himself back and forth. "It's great for his arm strength," said his dad, Jim.

Clemyjontri Park is divided into themed "rooms." One uses sign language and Braille and will accommodate all levels of physical ability. A "schoolhouse and maze" space focuses on learning games involving geography, time zones, maps and clocks. The "movin' and groovin' " transportation area includes equipment such as model helicopters, jets and fire engines. The most popular spot -- and Clemyjontri's centerpiece -- contains an accessible carousel, with 14 animals and three chariots.

Funding for the $5.3 million playground and surrounding facilities came from the park authority, the nonprofit Fairfax County Park Foundation, the Friends of Clemyjontri Park and other public and private donations.

Some of the benefactors paid to have their names on the carousel, which drew the largest crowd yesterday.

Caroline Ainsworth, 16, of Springfield, was looking forward to the ride because she was one of the disabled people who suggested it to park officials when they asked the public for ideas.

"It was awesome," Ainsworth said, looking like she was ready for another go. "I will be back again sometime soon."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company