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Jewish Journal

Calabasas evens playing field for special-needs kids

by Adam Wills

October 19, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Dina and Brandon Kaplan sit outside Brandon's Village in Calabasas. Photo by Michael Kaplan

Dina and Brandon Kaplan sit outside Brandon's Village in Calabasas. Photo by Michael Kaplan

For children with physically limiting conditions like cerebral palsy or spinal muscular atrophy, something as simple as playing in a park can seem impossible. Swings can be unsafe, and climbing equipment is unaccommodating to many children reliant on wheelchairs and walkers for support and mobility.

Most slides, swings, forts and crawl spaces are designed for kids who can run, jump and climb. But when parks don't factor in the limitations of special-needs children, it denies them a fundamental childhood experience.

Now the city of Calabasas is preparing a play area where the thousands of special-needs children living in the Conejo and West San Fernando valleys can play alongside all children their age. Brandon's Village, the area's first universally accessible handicapped playground, is scheduled to open on Oct. 28 at Gates Canyon Park on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, just east of Las Virgenes Road. Brandon's Village is aimed at children with special needs, but the equipment is designed to be fun for everyone.

The opening of this playground -- and others like it -- reflects a movement spurred by parents of special-needs children who want to see their kids mainstreamed in all areas of life, from playgrounds to school to shul.

Brandon's Village is the result of a partnership between the Las Virgenes Special Education PTA, the city of Calabasas, the Talbert Family Foundation and the Friedman Charitable Foundation. But at the center of it all has been Dina Kaplan.

Her passion to make the world accessible for her 12-year-old son, Brandon, who has multiple physical and developmental disabilities, has been the catalyst for a fundamental shift in how Calabasas looks at the children who play in its parks.

"In order to be an ADA-accessible playground, all that [cities] have to provide is access to get to the playground, like a ramp from the parking lot. They don't have to provide access to the equipment," said Kaplan, referring to the Americans With Disabilities Act. Fully accommodating equipment has not been the focus of playground planning, she pointed out, because most people don't understand the need. "They don't have kids with disabilities. It was just something they didn't think about or know about," she said. Brandon's Village joins eight other universally accessible playgrounds in the Los Angeles area, including Shane's Inspiration in Griffith Park, Neil Papiano Play Park at the Los Angeles Zoo, Aiden's Place at Westwood Park and Parque de los Suenos in East Los Angeles. Another playground for the East San Fernando Valley is currently under construction at El Cariso Park in Sylmar.

However, it was the Griffith Park playground, which opened in 1998 and was the first of its kind in Los Angeles, that inspired Kaplan's vision for Brandon's Village.

"Brandon had gone to Shane's Inspiration when he was 5, and I've always wanted to bring that kind of playground to my community," said Kaplan, a special-education attorney and executive director of The K.E.N. Project, a nonprofit that helps explain laws designed to protect special-needs children to parents and professionals.

Such playgrounds allow children with limited physical abilities to enjoy playing by themselves alongside typical children. Park features include high-backed swings; wheelchair-accessible modular play areas; a spongy, wheelchair-friendly ground covering; and low-lying slides and crawl spaces. Additional traditionally sized forts, slides and climbing opportunities make these mixed-use destinations popular among all children.

Kaplan and Joann Melancon, both cofounders of Las Virgenes Special Education PTA, first approached the city of Calabasas with the Brandon's Village idea more than three years ago. The two mothers, both Jewish, took Jeff Rubin, the city's community services director, on a field trip with other parents to visit Shane's Inspiration.

Melancon said that she and Kaplan laid the groundwork together slowly, taking their time and building support.

"It ended up being a huge community building project. All over, people would ask what they could do to help," she said. "People would be on the golf course talking about the project."

While approval from the city was easy to come by, funding for the project initially proved more difficult. After Brandon's Village was turned down for a grant by the state, Kaplan was despondent. Her brother-in-law, mortgage banker Bruce Friedman, asked her how much she needed.

"I said 'I need a million dollars' really flippantly, like it was 50 cents, and he said 'OK.' I was shocked," she said.

Last January, Friedman and his wife, Wendy, donated $1 million from their Friedman Charitable Foundation, which funds children's programs and scholarships for college-bound seniors. The donation is the largest in the history of Calabasas.

Once the money was in place, officials broke ground in May.

Brandon's Village was created by Shane's Inspiration, the nonprofit that established the eponymous Griffith Park playground in 1998 to honor Shane Williams, son of organization founders Catherine Curry-Williams and Scott Williams. Shane died from spinal muscular atrophy a few weeks after birth. Had he lived, he would have spent his life confined to a wheelchair.

Shane's Inspiration has completed 10 playgrounds and has 55 in development around the world. Tiffany Harris, executive director of Shane's Inspiration, said that park planners need to put themselves in the body of a child with disabilities as they consider designs.

"I think they really need to stop for a minute and consider giving able-bodied children the opportunity to socialize with [special-needs children]," she said. "It really does become a wonderful opportunity to integrate these two populations and dispel some of the myths."

For Calabasas, the addition of the playground to Gates Canyon Park is a source of pride.

This playground is "going to stand for the way this community and this region reacts toward kids with special needs," then-Calabasas Mayor Barry Groveman said during a ceremony to honor the Friedmans' donation in January.

"What I found so thrilling about the project is not simply what it does to enhance kids with special needs, but what it does for able-bodied kids" when they all play together, he said.

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