It was on a visit to the park about three years ago when Shelley Kramm, of Potomac, realized that her daughter Hadley would never be able to really play with her older sister at the playground.
Hadley Kramm, now 6, suffers from cerebral palsy, and her mother knew she would always find it difficult to maneuver her wheelchair through wood chips at the playground, and she would not be able to climb on the jungle gym like Sarah, now 10.
"I'd be pushing her over the wood chips. It would be, like, this is impossible," Kramm said. She thought, "As my kids get bigger, how am I going to take them to play together?"
The fact that one of her daughters would not be able to experience the same pleasures of childhood as the other gnawed at Kramm until she hit on the solution: She would build a playground that both children could enjoy.
"I thought it would be great to have a place for them to play together without barriers and boundaries," she said. "I wanted to give kids a happy place."
Kramm is about to see her dream come true. After three years of research, designing and fund-raising, Kramm and dozens of supporters met at Falls Road Local Park in Potomac last month to break ground for Hadley's Playground. When complete, it will be one of the first in the area to be fully accessible to physically disabled children.
The $700,000 playground, which will cover more than an acre, will feature play areas with themes such as a pirate ship, a frontier town and a castle bridge. Each of those areas will have sections that are accessible to disabled children as well as more challenging activities for able-bodied children. There also will be visual areas, such as butterfly gardens, bird-watching spots and tactile gardens.
The playground surface will be constructed of recycled tires, at a cost of $250,000, so it will be firm enough for wheelchairs and walkers, yet soft enough to prevent serious injury. Special features include color-coded four-square and hopscotch games that are large enough to allow wheelchair-using children to play.
There also will be a path for bikes and wheelchairs complete with stop signs. Picture-communication signs used by autistic children and others in Braille also will be installed.
The playground, which is scheduled to be completed in early spring, began with Kramm's idea and soon blossomed into a project that proved irresistible to many who became involved. The project received a $150,000 grant from Montgomery County, $50,000 from the Ronald McDonald House Charities, $150,000 in corporate and private donations, and a $350,000 matching grant from the state.
The project took on great importance for Kramm and her husband, Kenneth, who found their lives profoundly changed when Hadley was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 10 months. She had suffered an inner-cranial hemorrhage 10 days after she was born.
"There's not anything that can prepare a parent to hear that," Kramm said. "At that point, I knew Sarah and Hadley's lives were going to be different."
Kramm, 36, an interior designer, studied books on play and recreation and consulted Sarah and her friends on the best ideas for a playground. Then she sat down at her drawing board to plan the park.
The next step was securing the land. Kramm asked the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in July 1996 for a place to build the playground. By January 1997, the commission had found a spot, approved Kramm's plan and agreed to maintain the new playground.
Ellen Masciocchi, a commission planner who is serving as the project's manager, said the commission has installed some accessible equipment at two of its parks but nothing on the scale envisioned by Kramm.
"When she came and asked me, I knew it was a possible thing to do," Masciocchi said, adding that the commission did not expect that Kramm would be able to raise the money needed to buy the expensive equipment. But Kramm was back in six months.
"We were all shocked. She said, I got it,' " Masciocchi said.
Half the funding is from the state grant approved by the General Assembly last spring after Del. Mark K. Shriver (D-Montgomery) and Kramm visited lawmakers carrying a TV and a short video showing a similar park in Connecticut. Other supporters also lobbied legislators.
"It really was grass-roots lobbying at its best," Shriver said.
It was at the park commission's meeting in January 1997 that Kramm met architect Grace Fielder, who was so impressed by the playground idea that she volunteered her services on the spot. Fielder, whose Laurel firm has designed numerous parks and athletic facilities, said deciding to donate her time was a "no-brainer."
"Any project that undertakes to level the playing field so that nobody sees the differences might ultimately make this a better place to live," she said. With the funding in place and the equipment ordered, Kramm has now put on her hard hat to supervise the construction of her dream. "It's been an overwhelming experience over the last three years because everyone I met has helped me, whether it be big or little. I'm very grateful," Kramm said.
But she reserves the most credit for Hadley, whose infectious smile serves as her mother's biggest inspiration. "She's my hero," Kramm said. CAPTION: On dad Kenneth's shoulder, Hadley Kramm gets a lift at the playground near their house. A new playground under construction will accommodate disabilities. ec CAPTION: Hadley Kramm, 6, gets a push from her father through the grass at Falls Road Local Park in Potomac, where construction is under way on a more accessible playground. At right, grandmother Riv Neiss, left, and mother Shelley Kramm help Hadley ride a spring horse. Shelley Kramm led the effort for the new playground, which is due to open in the spring. ec