On April 28, about 250 supporters of the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation (GSF) gathered at the S.B. Zoo’s hilltop to raise funds for Gwendolyn’s Playground, the city’s first inclusive playground, which is planned for Dwight Murphy Field.
During the reception, guests socialized over bubbly beverages and through occasional, gentle bubbles on this sunny Santa Barbara day. After guests were seated, emcee Andrew Firestone greeted them and enthusiastically endorsed the cause while, as always, entertaining the crowd.
During the program, cofounder and Executive Director Victoria Strong explained how her daughter Gwendolyn, who died at age 7 from spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), wanted to play alongside her peers because the desire for joy and a sense of belonging are part of the human spirit. Strong related how a disability affects the entire family and how inclusion is a primary source of improved health and well-being for these families.
Strong’s vision also encompasses a playground that is more inspiring for everyone. Strong drew many laughs and nods when she stated, “That darn tic-tac-toe thing drives me bananas. I have never seen anyone use this for more than a fraction of a second — if ever. For years, I have been studying what is valuable in these spaces, and I have learned that we need to think so much bigger.” Strong related how another of her children at age 2 mastered areas deemed appropriate for 12-year-olds, which made her realize how limiting our play spaces are and why so many kids want nothing to do with them. She further noted how our rates of obesity, isolation, and anxiety are through the roof.
In a video shot at Dwight Murphy Field, Strong explained how Gwendolyn and the myriad children with disabilities she has met all possess joy and a spirit of adventure. Regardless of what they are going through, they all want to play, and when they play, according to Strong, all the differences melt away. Gwendolyn brought people together, Strong reflected, and this playground will be her legacy.
Strong and her husband, Bill Strong, started the foundation in 2009, with an initial focus on funding SMA research. It has provided more than $3 million to more than 35 researchers, including for gene replacement therapy, which led to the transformational treatment Zolgensma. With this and other treatments now available, GSF shifted its focus to the playground.
GSF also provides financial support to families with a child with SMA. It has provided nearly $1 million for such items as wheelchairs and accessible vans. Until last year, the Foundation had no employees; now, it has two, with the Strongs still taking no compensation. A board of directors, an advisory board, and interns all volunteer as well.
GSF has worked closely with the City of S.B. Parks and Recreation Department over the past six years creating a master plan to revitalize the whole Dwight Murphy Field complex. The plans have received all necessary approvals — garnering unanimous support at each step — and now final design plans and construction specifications are being completed. The target date for groundbreaking is the end of 2023.
GSF has raised $2.6 million toward the $6 million cost of the playground. It is also seeking funding for the $3 million cost of the sports fields and an endowment for playground maintenance and programming. The city has assumed infrastructure costs, estimated at $6 million-$8 million.
According to Strong, most cities want to do the right thing, but having disability advocates deeply involved in the design process is critical. She recounted visiting “accessible playgrounds” that were not at all accessible. The closest actual accessible playgrounds, according to Strong, are in Calabasas to the south and Palo Alto to the north. GSF’s design “takes a little bit from the multi-generational approach of the European model, borrows from best inclusive practices across the country, and then adds elements from a diverse group of therapists, educators, and parents.”
Strong envisions having diverse programming at the playground. GSF already has partnered with the Grace Fisher Foundation for accessible dance, art, and music programming and has plans for much more.
In addition to the playground providing the benefits of play, Strong posits that “by building a public space that celebrates our differences and gives all community members equal access and the chance to cultivate friendships, Gwendolyn’s Playground will have a direct impact on dismantling stigma, instilling a broader understanding of diversity, and fostering partnerships that are currently inaccessible.”
For more info or to make a donation, go to https://nevergiveup.org.