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Let us play

Fundraising is under way to build a playground where disabled kids can frolic alongside their able-bodied friends.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 17, 2002


photo
[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Stefani Busansky and her daughter Sarah, 3, race down the slide with Andrea Allen, 5, at MacFarlane Park on Monday. Prompted by the Busansky family, the city of Tampa agreed to set aside a spot at the park for a playground that is handicap-accessible.
TAMPA -- Three-year-old Sarah Busansky acts like a lot of children her age. She screams when she doesn't get her way and loves cuddling with Mom and a book.

But when it comes to going to the park, Sarah prefers to stay home.

She can't have fun at the playground in her wheelchair.

Soon, that may change.

Sarah's mother, Stefani, has started a campaign to build a public playground designed for children with disabilities. It would have wheelchair-accessible ramps, cushioned flooring and play stations for 2- to 12-year-olds, including those who are blind.

"We're hoping for something all-inclusive," Busansky said. "I want all kids to be able to play together."

The playground would be the first of its kind in the city of Tampa, where thousands of children like Sarah can't fully enjoy a day at the park.

This month, Hillsborough County opened a $600,000 accessible playground at Clayton Park in Brandon. St. Petersburg has a smaller one at Tyrone Elementary School.

The equipment allows children in wheelchairs, walkers and leg braces to play alongside able-bodied kids without getting help or crawling through a moat of sand.

"It's something for everybody," said Ed Busansky, 38-year-old son of former Hillsborough County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky. "It's not just for disabled kids."

The wheelchair-accessible playground that Stefani Busansky is working to build in Tampa is modeled after this one at Clayton Park in Brandon. Hillsborough County opened the $600,000 playground this month.
Stefani Busansky came up the idea a year ago after taking Sarah to Kate Jackson Park in Hyde Park. The other children were running around playing, but Sarah sat still with nothing to do. Sensing her frustration and isolation, Busansky vowed to take action.

In March, she formed a committee of volunteers. Sarah's physical therapist, Vickie Dakin, serves as co-chairwoman. Dakin also is vice president of the Tampa Junior Woman's Club, the campaign's sponsor.

The proposed name: Freedom Playground.

This week, the city of Tampa agreed to set aside a shady spot at MacFarlane Park, north of Interstate 275 on MacDill Avenue. The city, which owns the park, would build and maintain the playground.

First, the committee must raise $300,000 for the equipment.

Physical therapist Vickie Dakin, left, and Stefani Busansky help Sarah Busansky, 3, get into her wheelchair at MacFarlane Park. The sand at the park becomes a hindrance for kids in wheelchairs, which is why the women are leading a drive to raise money for a playground for disabled kids.
Boundless Playgrounds is helping with the design. The Connecticut-based organization works with communities across the country to develop fully accessible play areas. Busansky learned of it after reading a newspaper article about the St. Petersburg playground, which was built in honor of Leah Bosworth, who had spina bifida and died at age 6.

In the past month, the committee has raised about $10,000 toward the project. Mary Watson, who met Sarah during her therapy sessions at Tampa General Hospital, donated the first $5.

The group hopes to get grants and corporate sponsors to cover many costs. They also are seeking private donations. The next fund-raiser -- a "pampered pajama party" with free wine and food, spa treatment demonstrations, raffles and a pajama contest -- is set for June 12 at Guillot Apothecary and Day Spa on Bay to Bay Boulevard.

Rallying support is nearly a full-time job for Stefani Busansky, former education director for Project Return, an organization that helps adults with mental illnesses. For Mother's Day, her husband bought her a fax machine.

"I feel like we're on a train that can't be stopped," said Busansky, 35, "It's exhilarating and frightening at the same time."

The Busanskys, who live in New Suburb Beautiful, might never have known about the need until Sarah was born. An estimated 27,000 families in Hillsborough County have school-age children with disabilities. Many others have infants and toddlers not yet reflected in school rolls.

Sarah was born May 6, 1999, three months premature. She weighed 2 pounds and 11 ounces, measured 14 inches long and had hair like an "Elvis pompadour," her mother says. Though dangerously small, she was strong, doctors said.

Sarah went home six weeks later after nearly doubling her weight. Her parents prayed she would eventually catch up.

Ed and Stefani Busansky push their daughter Sarah on the swings at MacFarlane Park. The Busanskys are leading a fundraising drive to build the city's first playground for disabled kids.
Doctors knew something was wrong right by age 1. Sarah wasn't walking and couldn't sit up on her own.

In April 2001, a brain scan confirmed she had cerebral palsy, an incurable disorder that limits muscle control and movement. Symptoms vary dramatically -- from simple motor skill impairment to devastating paralysis. Some people have severe mental impairments, while others have none.

More than 500,000 people have cerebral palsy in the United States.

Though relieved to have answers, the Busanskys mourned for their only child. They lost hope for a normal, healthy daughter, and went through feelings of depression, denial and grief.

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Physical therapist Vickie Dakin, left, and Grace Smith are officers of the Tampa Junior Woman's Club, the project's sponsor.
The couple spent months learning about the subject online and searching for a "miracle" doctor and cure. Then, they shifted their energy.

"We got tired of focusing on the negative," Stefani Busansky said. "Sarah is a great kid. She's fine, beautiful, just the way she is."

Intellectually, Sarah has no problems. She will lead a normal, productive life, but may have labored speech because of her weak torso.

"She's very, very bright," said Dakin, who works with Sarah twice a week. "She's like every other 3-year-old and then some."

Dakin, a physical therapist for 24 years, said the 25,000-square-foot playground will serve a huge void in the city. Although a few playgrounds permit wheelchairs, none is this elaborate.

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High-back swing such as this would be one of the features in the new playground.
The playground will have swings with extra back support, play areas with space for wheelchairs and challenging hands-on activities for kids of all ages. Trails and a sculpture garden with donors' names will add to the site.

The committee picked MacFarlane Park because of its central location next to a city bus stop. Members wanted disabled parents to be able to go to the park and play on the equipment with their able-bodied children.

Busansky hopes the playground will become the standard for other parks, a place where children learn to respect and value each other, regardless of differences.

"The whole idea is so much bigger than one child in a wheelchair and one mother," she said.

Depending on donations, construction could start in the next six months to a year. And if all goes as planned, the playground could be done in two years.

The Busanskys can't wait. Neither can Sarah.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

* * *

To help with the Freedom Playground project, call Stefani Busansky at 251-4887 or send a donation to the Tampa Junior Woman's Club Freedom Playground Fund at TJWC, 2901 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa, FL 33629.

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