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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, June 22, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesProject Playground Comes to St. Thomas

Project Playground Comes to St. Thomas

Last year when Meaghan and Cyril Richardson and their toddler, Connor, were visiting in Southern California, a casual visit to a local playground provoked an inspired idea, one that is now sprouting roots on St. Thomas.

"We’d rented a house right around the corner from a great playground," Meaghan Richardson says. "We’d go there every day, sometimes three times a day. I couldn’t get over the feeling of community with the people there. Here we were, basically tourists, and they welcomed us with open arms, like a family.”

"This is crazy," Richardson thought at the time. "We need this at home. We don’t have anything like this. People always say you have the beach, you have so much," she says. "While I agree with that, we need more than the beach. We need a place where kids can interact with other kids of different cultures, where they can meet new kids, where parents can meet."

Richardson isn’t one to let a good idea get away. She came home with a plan firmly in mind: Project Playground was born with the aim of having a playground on the East End of the island before the year is out.

Richardson, born on St. Thomas, says she realizes that things on island have a tendency to lose steam and interest if momentum ebbs. Bearing that in mind, the determined young mother hasn’t lost a moment of her momentum. The project has become a three-pronged effort comprising the St. Thomas Swimming Association (STSA), the Therapy Association and Disability Advocates (TADA), and Charity Chicks, an organization founded by Richardson and Kelly O’Brien Uszenski, last year, to help raise money and awareness for local organizations in need. Now it finds itself backing a project of its own.

First, Richardson reached out to the St. Thomas Swimming Association (STSA), which turned out to be inspired timing, dovetailing with an STSA project. Richardson says Mary Malone, STSA program director, "immediately got on board with the project. The association’s vision is to transform their current four acres into a community center, including a playground, sports courts, with the existing 50-meter pool and clubhouse. They agreed to provide space for the playground in order to initiate their expansion project.

"Word of the project spread fast on our little island," Richardson says, "and it attracted the attention of the Therapy Association and Disabilities Advocates (TADA) who, it turns out, were also looking to construct a universally accessible playground."

TADA is a not for profit organization made up occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, school psychologists and other allied professionals working in all clinical areas on the islands. Its basic mission is to improve the quality of life for individuals with disabilities.
TADA has offered an adaptive swimming program at STSA for youngsters with physical problems, but Richardson notes, there is no playground offering similar opportunities.
Richardson says, "TADA board member, Lisa Parfitt, an occupational therapist, has been invaluable. She is right there with me on every step of the project."

Right now, Richardson says they are knocking on doors and approaching the local business community. The project has so far raised about $20,000, mainly from two small fundraisers, toward an $186,000 budget goal.

A savvy businesswoman, Richardson says, "We have just begun reaching out to local EDC, (Economic Development Commission) businesses for donations. Our goal is to present to as many companies as we can over the next two to three months. We have already gotten verbal interest from some companies to donate."

Those companies will find a professionally laid out presentation – an illustrated master plan, a precisely itemized budget, including a 10 percent amount for the next five to seven years’ maintenance. Surfacing is a big expense. It must be easy to navigate for children with motor impairments, Richardson says. She is investigating surfacing options now, one of which she says could bring down the budget by about $20,000.

Richardson doesn’t have a dream, really. It’s a mission: "It will be a place where families of all ages and abilities can gather to socialize and engage in meaningful and safe play experiences." Richardson cited some sobering statistics, from the Kids Count USVI Data Book, produced by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands. These figures present social challenges that the playground can influence,” she says.

There are 758 children in the territory with disabilities, and no playgrounds designed to specifically accommodate them. Though Richardson doesn’t have the breakdown for each island, the territory-wide figure is arresting.

Limited free-movement apparatus – swings, teeter totters – are items closely linked with attention, organization, and visual processing—all critical for literacy. Sixty percent of V.I. children entering public kindergarten have skills below age-levels crucial to learning and reading.

Richardson urges parents, businesses, anyone with a yen for a better St. Thomas, to join the project. She can be reached at 626-4910 or meaghanf80@yahoo.com.

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