Everybody plays: All-access playground moves forward

The parents of Bennett McClurken-Gibney, who died of spinal muscular atrophy in February 2018, will now build an all-abilities playground at Pen Park in his honor. It’ll be modeled after his favorite park in Richmond, where Bennett’s mom says he loved to lay in the saucer swing. Courtesy Kara McClurken The parents of Bennett McClurken-Gibney, who died of spinal muscular atrophy in February 2018, will now build an all-abilities playground at Pen Park in his honor. It’ll be modeled after his favorite park in Richmond, where Bennett’s mom says he loved to lay in the saucer swing. Courtesy Kara McClurken

A place for all to play.

That’s the goal of Bennett’s Village, a proposed playground for children and adults of all abilities in Charlottesville, which City Council approved April 1. The parents of Bennett McClurken-Gibney, a child with spinal muscular atrophy who died in February 2018, now have permission to build a $5-million playscape at Pen Park. The city has agreed to maintain it as part of the deal.

Kara McClurken says she would like to model the playscape after Richmond’s Park365, which used to be her 5-year-old son’s favorite place to play. He loved to be rocked on the saucer swing and to climb the wheelchair-accessible treehouse.

“Almost every kid—they love heights, they love wind on their face, they love movement,” says McClurken. “That idea of really being able to look down [from the treehouse] across a landscape is something that he didn’t get very many opportunities to do, because he couldn’t use most equipment.”

Though the proposed three-acre space at Pen Park hasn’t been designed yet, she says it will include similar equipment that provides height and movement—such as the saucer swing, treehouse, or a merry-go-round with an option to lock in wheelchairs.

McClurken and a friend, the mom of another child with special needs, started to discuss the development of an accessible playground before Bennett’s death, she says. But the day after he passed, McClurken says her mission became more clear.

As she and her husband were leaving Johnson Elementary—where Bennett’s class was celebrating Dr. Seuss week, and the parents had already committed to bringing the eggs for green eggs and ham—“We were walking back through the playground and we just sort of looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s build that playground,’” she says. “‘Let’s make that his legacy.’”

So far, the parents and supporters have raised nearly $100,000 through their GoFundMe website and other donations. They also plan to apply for grants, and McClurken says she doesn’t anticipate the hefty price tag being much of a barrier.

“People just believe in the dream,” she says. “I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t understand why this is a good idea.”

Not only will it provide a space for children with limited mobility, but also for family and friends with similar disabilities who’d like to be able to play with the children in their lives.

“Bennett is certainly our inspiration and our light, but there’s just so much need,” she adds.

Vice-Mayor Heather Hill is in favor of the project. “I certainly support the concept of an all-abilities playground and bringing it to life through a public-private partnership,” she says. “Based on what we have heard from the community and what was presented to us at our [March 18] council meeting, this is clearly an unmet need in our immediate region.”

City staff will now draft a memorandum of agreement to define the partnership between the city and the folks of Bennett’s Village.

McClurken says she wishes she had her son’s help with bringing the playground to life.

“Bennett would probably be able to advocate for the park better than we can,” she says. “You could see him in his power chair and you could see his energy. We are poor substitutes for telling his story.”