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story.lead_photo.caption Parks and Recreation Director Chris Treat, left, and Mayor Jill Dabbs discuss some of the amenities that will be added to the new inclusive Mills Park in Bryant. - Photo by Sam Pierce

BRYANT — In 2005, when the city of Bryant was working toward building Bishop Park, the tag line was “A Park for Everyone.” Now that phrase has seemed to expand to include the parks department’s latest project.

The city of Bryant has received a $250,000 grant from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism for the Mills Park Inclusive Playground Project. According to a press release issued by the city, the grant — along with the $300,000 the city is putting in — will be used “to transform the existing play area at Mills Park into a new all-inclusive playground and walking trail, as well as improving access to the park.”

The idea for an all-inclusive park stemmed from Erin Gildner with the University of Arkansas’ Partners for Inclusive Communities.

“I have two sons, ages 12 and 13, and when they were little, I had a hard time at parks and playgrounds,” Gildner said. “It was difficult getting around, and I couldn’t take them by myself. I often found myself segregated from everyone else and watching from a distance.”

Gildner said she wanted the same opportunity to play outside with her kids as everyone else.

“I feel that inclusion is extremely important for communities because it allows everyone to play together and teaches younger generations that all people, no matter their abilities, can play together,” she said.

“She’s a mom that was injured in a car accident (in 2002) and was paralyzed from the waist down,” Bryant Mayor Jill Dabbs said of Gildner. “She has the experience of taking her able-bodied children to parks and having trouble accessing the parks herself.

“She is very capable and very sufficient, but she just needed places that were more accessible. She has been a big champion for accessible play.”

Dabbs also said former parks employee Brandon Griffin brought the idea for the inclusive playground to her and the city — as early as 2013.

“This particular project encourages more activity in an already-active place, and it will be a park that people from all over the state will come and visit,” Dabbs said in a press release issued by the city. “I think when people, no matter what their abilities are, are given an opportunity to become their best person, it benefits them and their communities long-term in every way.”

Chris Treat, parks and recreation director for the city, expects the park to be open before summer starts, but the recent rains have delayed a lot of the construction.

“They are currently working on the new sidewalks and new parking spaces and a new bathroom,” Treat said. “We designed the bathroom with families with children with disabilities in mind.

“The changing tables are very large and can hold an adult child. We also wanted to make sure parents with disabilities with children who don’t have disabilities can also access the park.

“Those two groups are definitely underserviced.”

Treat said part of the goal of the park is to “break down the barrier” between able-

bodied children and children with disabilities.

“We want them to experience the park together,” Treat said. “It is designed to look like a playground, not just a playground for children with disabilities, but for all children.

“We want to break down the barriers that are sometimes there.”

He described the park as “a destination playground.”

“We are expecting people from all over the region to come and play at the park, maybe grab lunch and just enjoy it,” Treat said.

In the press release, Treat states that “the funding, along with money set aside from the bond refinancing, and from community partners such as Everett Buick GMC, will ensure that the inclusive playground at Mills Park will become a reality even sooner than expected.”

“This is just phase 1, which is the majority of the playground,” Treat said. “There will be a smaller phase 2, and we are trying to raise the funds for that, but that’s another couple hundred thousand dollars.”

Treat said the city is currently working with a company called Unlimited Play, based in St. Louis.

“They are helping raise the rest of the funds to put in for phase 2,” Treat said. “Basically, there are pieces of playground equipment that we will put in as soon we have the money for them.”

Those three pieces are a zip line, a Merry-Go-All and a Rock N Raft.

“Those will be accessible for all children, both able-bodied and children with disabilities,” Treat said. “But phase 1 is 70 percent of the playground. It will be a great playground as soon as it opens.”

Treat said the park is going to be one of the largest of its kind around.

“Of all the ones they showed me they’ve done before, this one is very ambitious,” Treat said. “In other words, our phase 1 is bigger than other people’s entire playground.”

Treat said once the project nears its final stages, there will be a workday for volunteers, but that date has not yet been set.

“We want a lot of volunteers to come out and help finalize the park. It has been a real collaborative effort from start to finish,” Treat said.

“I could see people recognize what a great park Mills Park is with all the improvements that we are continuing to invest in the park,” Dabbs said. “I think it is very important to that area of our city that we keep it revitalized and maintain property values so it continues to be a place that people want to move to and raise their children.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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