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    $8,000 surprise gives lift to girl's playground project

    The Ryan's Hope Project will bring handicapped-accessible equipment to R.E. Olds Park in Oldsmar.

    By CHRISTINE GRAEF

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


    OLDSMAR -- An anonymous donor has made it possible for Ryan McCullers to begin work on a project she has been planning for nine months.

    A check for $8,000 arrived in the mail late last week from a local woman who wanted to see the 11-year-old complete the Ryan's Hope Project, a plan to place handicapped-accessible playground equipment in R.E. Olds Park. With that donation, Ryan has raised the $40,000 needed for the equipment.

    "I was surprised," Ryan said. "The lady had called us a few days before to tell us she'd mail it. We got it on Thursday."

    Ryan said she was planning to continue raising money if the woman had not called.

    "She went nuts," said Ryan's mother, Sherri McCullers. "She's absolutely excited to be able to finally get it going."

    Last March Ryan, a fifth-grader at Oldsmar Christian School, approached the Oldsmar City Council with the ambitious plan. City officials unanimously approved the idea and left it to Ryan to raise the funds. The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board recommended approval in July.

    Ryan selected nine pieces of playground equipment, including a swing, an enclosed merry-go-round, a maze consisting of educational panels, a sandbox and a picnic table with space for a wheelchair. The project was estimated to cost about $40,000.

    Ryan raised about $32,000 through letters asking for donations, a "jail and bail" held at City Hall last August, a $10,000 donation from Clearwater Mattress in November and a $5,000 grant from Allegheny Franciscan Foundation in Clearwater.

    Ryan has already begun the design layout for the project with the help of architect David Wallace of Oldsmar. Wallace volunteered his services to Ryan when Ryan called him early in the process asking for any help he would be willing to give. Wallace met with Ryan and her mother last week to discuss the design and estimate the square footage and the amount of concrete needed for a walkway.

    Wallace said he expects the design to be complete before Christmas and submitted to the City Council for approval in January. The plans will first be reviewed by the city's Department of Community Development after they are drawn, according to Oldsmar parks and recreation director Lynn Rives.

    "Hopefully, we can begin to install it this winter," Wallace said.

    "I think kids will think it's neat," Ryan said.

    It was while playing at Friendship Park in R.E. Olds Park last spring that Ryan thought of the idea. She said that although there is playground equipment at the park, there is none for handicapped children.

    Sherri McCullers said there's no telling what projects Ryan will take on next.

    "She's into everything," she said. "She's a cheerleader and a soccer player for Oldsmar Outlaws. She plays piano and she's on the pep squad."

    Ryan said her next wish is to be able to help construct the playground.

    "I don't know if that will happen," said Ryan. "But I may be able to help dig up some dirt. I like to get dirty."

    "We may be able to arrange that," Wallace said.

    Ryan said she plans to place specialized equipment at other parks "so they have as much as I do."

    - Staff writer Christine Graef can be reached at (727) 445-4229 or graef@sptimes.com.

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