Gwendolyn’s Playground: A Project That Will Put Us in Rare Company
On November 12, on an enchanting property in Montecito’s Hedgerow kindly donated by the Winn and Twining families, nearly 300 people came together to the Butterfly Ball, an event to support Santa Barbara residents Bill and Victoria Strong and their quest to build a state-of-the-art, truly inclusive playground for kids and adults alike. Gwendolyn’s Playground will be the first project of its kind in Santa Barbara, and only one of a small handful of such parks throughout the country.
The Strongs have deep roots in the community, founding the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation (GSF) after the birth of their first daughter, Gwendolyn, who was born in 2007. At six months old, Gwendolyn was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease, Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), which causes atrophy in the muscular system, and often leads to severe disability or death.
While caring for their disabled daughter, the Strongs, through their foundation, funded cutting edge research around the world, research which played a pivotal role in changing the progression of the disease. With a tagline of “Never Give Up,” the foundation raised millions of dollars for SMA research. Gwendolyn passed away at the age of 7 in 2015, and in 2016, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug approved to treat SMA.
The gene replacement therapy is injected into the fluid surrounding the spinal cord, and has saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Just last year California began routinely screening for the disease in newborns, in order to offer the cutting-edge gene replacement therapy.
“That was our focus for many years, and now we are setting our sights on the playground,” Victoria said in an interview earlier this week.
While profoundly disabled, little Gwendolyn Strong thrived during her short life, possessing and sharing an exuberance for life and inspiring kindness in her friends and strangers. She attended elementary school, had many friends, danced hip-hop, ran half marathons, adored reading, and loved adventures and travel.
“We lived big when we could, and she cherished the simplest of gifts along the way. But what she couldn’t do, was ‘be one of the kids’ at local playgrounds,” Victoria said. “While many Santa Barbara playgrounds are ADA compliant, not a single one allowed Gwendolyn to play alongside her friends or participate fully on the equipment.”
The GSF is working closely with the city of Santa Barbara to build Gwendolyn’s Playground, which is slated to be built on a portion of the 10-acre Dwight Murphy Field located near the Santa Barbara Zoo. Acquired by the city in 1925, Dwight Murphy Field was formerly known as the Municipal Soccer Field, and currently serves as the city’s only dedicated soccer facility; there is also a playground, softball field, parking lot, restroom, and outdoor fitness area.
Unfortunately, the park suffers from public misuse, due in part to a now-vacant shower and concessionaire building. The city is partnering with GSF to develop a master plan at the park, which will optimize the use of the sports field space, develop a concept plan for the fully accessible playground, and redesign the restroom and defunct shower and concessionaire facilities. There will also be new picnic facilities, landscape renovation, replacement of the adult fitness equipment, and improved park entries.
A universally accessible playground is a space designed to remove physical barriers to allow children of all abilities to play side-by-side. Using evidence-based principles of inclusive design, the playground will incorporate the needs of children and adults with physical disabilities, but also consider the needs of individuals with autism and sensory impairments, intellectual disabilities, and visual and hearing loss.
“The playground will provide a missing component to support the development of all children in this community,” Victoria said.
At the heart of the project is the multi-story, fully accessible, custom designed “Magical Tree” play structure. Extra wide ramping will allow multiple children, wheelchair-users and caregivers, and siblings to access all levels side-by-side. Each level will contain experiential elements, STEM installations, and interactive and educational experiences.
Beyond the Magical Tree, there will be multiple accessible slides, spinning and rotating structures, an interactive dance and play arch, multiple climbing features, a music garden, inclusive swings for kids and adults, and an inclusive art mural by artist Fred Calleri.
“Every section of the playground will have multiple uses. It will be multigenerational, for families with new babies to grandparents, playing together,” Victoria said. “You just don’t see that in Santa Barbara, and our playgrounds are not meeting the needs of our children.”
Ongoing programming will include partnerships with the Santa Barbara Zoo, MOXI, Grace Fisher Foundation, the Autism Society, and others.
“I envision annual concert series, field trips, various exhibits, a coffee cart, and much more,” she said.
Local architect RRM Designs created the design for the playground, which has been praised by city planners as well as members of the Architectural Review Board and Planning Commission, one of whom called the playground “the most exciting park in our city’s history.”
“The city has long been wanting this type of playground, but frankly didn’t know where or how to start. I’m so grateful for our partnership,” Victoria said.
The project has received unanimous design and conceptual approvals thus far, with finalized design plans to be approved next year and groundbreaking in 2023.
The missing piece currently? The funding. The GSF is seeking to raise $6 million to fund the project, with the city pledging to cover the infrastructure costs and revitalization of the rest of the under-utilized park. Sidewalks will be added to connect the park to the Zoo and East Beach, the traffic flow will be altered, and parking will be added.
Last month’s Butterfly Ball was a huge help for the project, bringing in $700,000 through ticket sales, raffle items (including four tickets to Katy Perry’s new Las Vegas residency), and donations from nearly all the 300 attendees.
“I feel so grateful and proud of this community. They continue to show up for us,” Victoria said.
The event was emceed by Andrew Firestone,and co-chaired by Karie Ide and Kelly Almeroth, along with a faithful team including Development Coordinator Tess Council, Décor Chair Cristina Bentley, and committee members Analise Maggio, Erin Galbraith, Ivana Firestone, Jenny Deakyne, Jenny Edwards, Jillian Pirozzi, JJ McLeod, Kara Hornbuckle, Katie Crocker, Marina Delio, Nikki Murray, Ronda Fallon, Sarah Genuardi, Sarah Paskin,and Sylvie Rich.Many, many individuals and businesses have donated to the cause, including major sponsors the Bonelli Family and Sprague Family.
The total amount raised to date for the project is about $2.5 million, with future fundraising plans to include a luncheon in the spring and another Butterfly Ball next year. A recent partnership with Grassini Family Vineyards and Kyle’s Kitchen, as well as local, grassroots fundraising at several elementary schools is also in the works, and there are still several naming opportunities.
“We’re hoping to make some headway with local corporations and more nonprofits to make this happen,” Victoria said.
The project may also be eligible for state and federal grant funds, which she is exploring. If you are interested in learning more or donating to the cause, visit www.nevergiveup.org.
“Every child deserves to play. I think we can do so much better for our entire community,” Victoria said.