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Committee raising funds for Paul Bunyan Park playground that will be accessible to all kids

Paige Schoepel, left, and city Parks and Recreation Director Marcia Larson stand near the site of a proposed inclusive playground in Paul Bunyan Park Friday. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Local fundraisers hope to build an inclusive playground at Paul Bunyan Park in the coming years. The playground, shown above, would be accessible to all children. Rendering provided by the city of Bemidji 2 / 2

BEMIDJI — Growing up in Bemidji, Courtney Aitken Gifford made a lot of memories in the city’s parks and on its playgrounds.

She wants kids today, no matter their physical abilities, to be able to have that same chance.

She and several other locals are launching a fundraising campaign today to build an inclusive playground at Paul Bunyan Park. That playground will be specially designed so kids with disabilities, as well as able-bodied kids, can access the equipment.

That will mean a hefty price tag, however. Aitken Gifford said they expect to have to raise $450,000 through donations and grants. She is optimistic they will meet their goal and build the playground by 2015.

"There are a lot of good people in Bemidji," she said. "It’s down by Paul and Babe, it’s going to draw people there. It’s a win-win for everyone to have this kind of playground."

The fundraising launch event will be held at 11 a.m. today at the Jaycee’s Pavilion at Paul Bunyan Park. There will be a video presentation about the project and sponsorship packets available.

The all-inclusive playground has been designed by California-based Shane’s Inspiration, which has built more than 40 inclusive playgrounds in the United States and elsewhere.

The first Shane’s Inspiration playground was built in 1998 in Los Angeles, one year after young Shane Alexander died of Spinal Muscular Atrophy. In his name, his parents and local community leaders built the largest universally accessible playground in the nation, according to the organization’s website.

For Paige Schoepel, another Bemidji fundraiser, the playground is a way for all kids to interact and play together. She previously worked as a teacher in North Carolina, where some kids found it difficult to access the equipment.

"It was really heart- wrenching to see the kids in a wheelchair crying because they couldn’t get on the swing," she said. Schoepel said that problem still exists in Minnesota.

Bemidji’s inclusive playground originally was slated to be at North Country Park on 30th Street Northwest, but it was moved for greater visibility. That cut down the size of the playground and its costs, but it’s still more expensive than using traditional equipment.

Marcia Larson, the city’s parks and recreation director, said much of the costs have to do with the rubber surfacing used in an inclusive playground, rather than traditional pea gravel or wood chips.

Bemidji would be the first Minnesota city to have a Shane’s Inspiration playground, Larson said.

"It would be a big draw to our community," Schoepel said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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