Congressmember Salud Carbajal, local officials, and Gwendolyn's Playground supporters gathered on April 14 at Dwight Murphy Field. | Credit: Courtesy

Alongside several local officials, Congressmember Salud Carbajal announced on Friday the delivery of $1.5 million in federal funds for the creation of a new public park to house Santa Barbara’s first fully inclusive playground. The park, expected to open in 2025, will be located at Dwight Murphy Field, across the street from the Santa Barbara zoo.

“As a dad, and a grandfather, I agree with the basic premise that is the foundation of this planned renovation: Every child deserves to play,” said Carbajal. Features of the playground will be wheelchair accessible, as well as provide sensory play that aims to engage all five senses through music or physical stimulation.

The call for more inclusive play is championed by the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation and echoed by the greater Santa Barbara community. The new playground was inspired by Gwendolyn Strong, who was just like any other baby — happy and healthy — until she began having difficulty feeding and reaching for toys. At six months old, Gwen was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a fatal disease, similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, which causes the rapid degeneration of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

Although children with SMA are not expected to live past their second birthday, Gwen graced the community with her unrivaled joy for nearly eight years. In a wheelchair and inseparable from the machines that kept her alive, Gwen was still a kid. And just like any other kid, what Gwen wanted more than anything was to play. But because of rough playground surfaces and other accessibility issues, she couldn’t.

As well as the inclusive playground, the park renovation will also bring new recreation fields, a community green space, and an outdoor fitness gym. Although the $6 million goal for construction has been met independent of the federal funding, Carbajal’s aid will go toward an additional $2.5 million needed for inclusive programming and long-term equipment maintenance, and an additional $4 million for the sports field complex, in partnership with the Parks and Recreation department.

The new playground — to be called Gwendolyn’s Playground — is expected to break ground in 2024. “The new recreation fields, community green space, outdoor fitness gym, and inclusive playground will bring vital upgrades to serve youth, recreation enthusiasts, neighborhood residents, and families from all over Santa Barbara,” said Parks and Recreation Director Jill Zachary. “Gwendolyn’s Playground, Santa Barbara’s first inclusive play space, will ensure that all children, regardless of ability, will be able to play together.”


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