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Better Together Playground opens with ribbon cutting in Willard Saturday

The Better Together Playground as of Saturday, June 8. A few finishing touches left to be done.
Michele Skalicky / KSMU
The Better Together Playground as of Saturday, June 8. A few finishing touches left to be done.

The event runs 11 A.M. to 2 P.M. The 10,000 square foot inclusive playground was awarded National Demonstration Site status for its mix of inclusive equipment designed to maximize childhood engagement and development.

A new inclusive playground is set to be unveiled in Willard this Saturday. Those behind the project have said it will be the nearest inclusive playground for seven area communities, and at 10,000 square feet, the largest in the area.

The playground was a team effort by the Willard Parks and Recreation Department and a group of parents who formed a non-profit named Better Together.

“We had a vision of a place where no one was left on the sidelines.” Marianne Hill said, “a playground that would accommodate and respect all levels of abilities for children.”

Hill is a part of Better Together. She said she was inspired by reading about a similar inclusive playground at McBride Elementary in Springfield.
She explained, "it made me reflect on our own community park and the limitations it brings.”

Hill said just over two years ago, before becoming a formal non-profit, she and her group brought their idea for an inclusive playground to Willard's Parks and Recreation Department.

Willard Parks and Rec Director Jason Knight (for full disclosure Jason Knight is also the husband of Ozarks Public Broadcasting General Manager Rachel Knight) said he told the group, “Yeah that is a great idea, and also I don’t know that I have the funding for it.” Knight said the Better Together group responded by asking him about letting them lead a fundraising effort and making the vision a reality.

As Marianne Hills put it, “it was a simple vision, but it came with a very hefty price tag.”

A concept drawing for the park.
Willard Parks and Recreation
A concept drawing for the park.

Knight said the total cost of the project has come to just under $800 thousand dollars. He said ultimately it was largely paid for by ARPA funds, with Better Together contributing money through grants and fundraising, and $18,000 coming from the City itself.

Knight said the project went fantastically, he praised the accomplishments of the Better Together team, and says by all measures the playground is exceptional for a city the size of Willard. He looks forward to opening it to the community.

“I think they’re excited,” he explained, “but they don’t even know how excited to be just yet.”

Marianne Hill emphasized the inclusivity of the park, designed with kids and caregivers of all abilities in mind with an array of special equipment and features, including a wheelchair accessible merry-go-round, soft flat surfaces, a supported zipline and both sensory rich design and sensory retreats for overwhelmed children.

She said many people simply do not know the barriers society places before those living with disabilities. Just as she was inspired by the playground at McBride Elementary, she hopes the Better Together Playground in Willard creates its own ripple effect.

"Not only will it benefit surrounding communities,” she explained, “it sets the standard for inclusive practices and gets people thinking what else can we do and what other areas is there room for improvement.”

The City of Willard will hold a ribbon cutting ceremony for the playground Saturday at noon, they’ll have free face painting, sno-cones and balloons on site from 11 A.M. to 2 P.M. The Jackson Street Park is at 220 W. Jackson in Willard.