Word travels quickly in the small fishing village of Port Washington, Wisconsin. So when Mardy McGarry wanted to build a playground for kids with special needs, she knew it wouldn't take long to generate interest in the project. But she never expected that 2,800 people—a third of the town—would roll up their sleeves and use their vacation days to bring her vision to life.
"A lot of learning comes through play," says McGarry, 52, a special education teacher for 28 years. But her students were too often left out. She'd seen the wood chips and sand of traditional playgrounds stop wheelchairs dead in their tracks.
McGarry started researching play equipment and contacting design firms. When a chunk of land became available, the city council agreed to designate a portion for a playground if she would build it. McGarry asked classrooms of kids for their wish list. "They all said pirate ships," she says. She also asked physical, occupational, and speech therapists for their input. And she brought on board her friend Sue Mayer, whose eight-year-old son, Sam, has Down syndrome. "Neither of us is good at math, which is why $450,000 didn't sound like a lot of money," McGarry says of the initial estimate.
The $450,000 covered materials, but the actual construction, the women learned, would cost an additional $900,000. Not an option. But the community could build it. The design firm they'd selected, Leathers & Associates, had sent a 164-page how-to binder. All McGarry needed now was 500 volunteers to work six 12-hour days.
On September 16, 2008, the first day of construction, they came. Two women heard about the project from a deejay on the way to work and took the day off to help. A couple in their 80s manned the tool trailer. Ten-year-olds sanded surfaces and stacked scrap lumber.
"It was truly an amazing week," says McGarry. "The site looked like an anthill. So many people can take ownership of this playground."
Only three "build captains," sent by Leathers & Associates, were paid. Volunteers with "build experience" became coordinators, those who could operate power tools formed a separate group, and so on—down to the "runners." One team served meals donated from local restaurants and churches, and another organized activities for the children of volunteers.
Today, Possibility Playground is one of the most popular destinations in Ozaukee County. The finished wonderland, the length of a football field, sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. There's a giant rocking pirate ship, a lighthouse, a rock-climbing wall, high and low rings, monkey bars, palm drums, sandboxes, swings, slides, bridges, and ramps, ramps, ramps.
All children play shoulder to shoulder. "It's neat to see Tori fitting in," says Charlene Landing of her five-year-old wheelchair-bound daughter. "Some playgrounds have special equipment in a different section. Here, you see all the kids on the same playground having fun."
It's exactly what McGarry envisioned. "People used to ask, 'Why do you want to build a playground just for children with disabilities?'" she says. "They didn't get it. It's only when you build a playground for children with disabilities that you build one for all children."