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At last, the playing field is level

Freedom Playground will open fun to all abilities.

By MICHAEL CANNING, Times Staff Writer
Published February 1, 2008


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WEST TAMPA 

Don't tell Stefani Busansky about meeting deadlines.

After all, what's opening two years late when you're building Tampa's first - and some say perhaps the area's best - playground that's accessible to children with disabilities?

After six years of planning, fundraising, cutting through red tape and building, the South Tampa mother of two expects to see Mayor Pam Iorio cut the ribbon at 11 a.m. Saturday at Freedom Playground.

Occupying 1.2 acres of MacFarlane Park, just north of Interstate 275 off MacDill Avenue, the playground strikes newcomers as something unique.

"I don't know if there's anything in the state that comes close to this," said playground co-designer Tracey Delin of Hardeman Kempton & Associates Landscape Architects.

"I think it will be nationally known," said Tom Johnston, an urban planner for the city's parks and recreation department. "A lot of parks and recreation departments look at other parks in other cities. I think this will really be used as an example for other cities to follow."

- - -

With its play equipment, multitiered design and vibrant colors, the average person may not recognize Freedom Playground as an effort to include the disabled. Accommodations can be hard to notice because the playground was designed for all children so kids with differing abilities can play together.

Busansky, who founded the project, intended to set the benchmark high. "If it's just adequate, then that's what the average person thinks is an accessible playground," she said.

Here, swings are fitted with five-point harnesses, and bench swings are suitable for moms with infants.

Bench and table sets are wheelchair accessible, as are garden tables and sand tables. Large concrete circular planters are raised so kids can use them without leaving their wheelchairs.

The decks on the play sets are extra wide and mounted higher so wheelchairs can roll underneath them. Also within easy reach are a collection of giant wind chimes, a row of columns that double as conga drums and a steel drum.

Other features include a crank-driven gondola, a sand pit with buried "fossils," giant turtles that spit drinkable water, climbing rocks and balance poles, and a multilevel sandbox.

Standing high above it all in the middle of the playground is a multicolored shade.

The park pays homage to the surrounding West Tampa area. A ship's bow with a working ship's wheel is inscribed "S.S. Olivette" after a ship that once transported cigar workers to West Tampa.

A reading area with a raised lectern is a nod to the lectors of the old cigar factories who read aloud to the workers. A playhouse designed like a typical cigar worker's shotgun house is under construction.

"Those are the elements that I like the most," said Maura Barrios, a West Tampa native and historian who was one of many in the community who contributed ideas to the project. "(Busansky) was so informed on our history throughout the project. I think Stefani should be recognized as a really creative leader in Tampa."

- - -

Busansky, 41, didn't seek her position at the helm of Tampa's first "boundless" playground.

Her first child, Sarah, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in 2001 at age 2.

Soon, Stefani realized that the sand and wood chip surfaces common at playgrounds thwarted the wheels of Sarah's wheelchair. The New Suburb Beautiful mom also learned that playgrounds in Tampa weren't accessible to all children.

By 2002, Busansky had formed a committee of volunteers. Two years later it became the nonprofit Freedom Playground Foundation. Busansky is president.

The group first envisioned a $300,000 collection of play stations, wheelchair ramps and cushioned flooring - and a 2005 opening.

But the project grew as more people got involved and brought in new ideas. "Then the challenge became, let's push the envelope," Busansky said.

She credits the landscape architects at Hardeman Kempton, Freedom Playground's main designers, with expanding the project the most.

Johnston, the city urban planner, and numerous workshops with city officials and volunteers, helped the playground take shape.

The city has pledged about $400,000 toward the project. Busansky and her cohorts have raised the rest of the estimated $915,000 cost through grants and fundraising efforts, including the annual Tampa Wheel-A-Thon.

The effort has all but taken over Busansky's life.

"At times you just think it's endless. I'm trying to create a place for my family to be together, and the irony is that I'm not seeing much of my family," she said, referring to husband, Ed, 4-year-old daughter Claire and Sarah, now 8.

Still, Busansky, who once taught mentally ill adults, wants to keep raising money for the Freedom Playground Foundation.

The playground will need upkeep, and organizers hope it willinspire similar projects.

Since 2005 Busansky also has been spearheading an effort to build another accessible playground at Sarah's school, Grady Elementary.

Busansky says most of the $220,000 for that project has been raised, but red tape has stalled progress. But she's used to it; she saw plenty of that while getting Freedom Playground off the ground.

A recent moment at Freedom Playground reminded Busansky why she does this.

Sarah, while accompanying her mom to the work site, drove her wheelchair up on one of the elevated play sets by herself.

"Look," she called to her mom. "I'm up here. And you're down there."

 

 

If you go

Freedom Playground's grand opening

A kickoff event for the long-awaited opening of Tampa's first "boundless" playground begins at 11 a.m. Saturday at MacFarlane Park, 1700 N MacDill Ave. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio will participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony. At 11:30 a.m. the playground will officially open for play. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own picnic lunch. Drinks, desserts and snacks will be provided. There will also be games, pirates, clowns and storytelling. New and used children's books can be donated to Bess the Book Bus. Admission is free. For more information, call 254-3804.

 

[Last modified January 31, 2008, 07:56:39]


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