ATASCADERO — What started as a social media support group for parents with special-needs children grew into Parents for Joy, the organization that produced the $1.2 million all-inclusive Joy Playground. It opened to the public on April 5.

“A lot of us met when our kids were in preschool,” Atascadero mom Sarah Sullivan said. “The teacher realized that we were all kind of in the same place and did not really have any friends that understood what we were going through, so she put together a Facebook group.”

When Sullivan and Jenell Allen first pitched the unique play area concept to the City of Atascadero in 2013 they had no idea the years of planning and fundraising that lay ahead for them. Sullivan said it was hard enough for her just to address the Council in a public forum, let alone co-found a nonprofit and help design a one-of-a-kind children’s park. The Council gave Sullivan and Allen a green light to research the idea and the two in turn founded Parents for Joy to spearhead the project.

Sullivan said that the inclusiveness for special needs children was a learning experience for her and the community. Even though some things were evident to her, for example, it was obvious that her son’s wheelchair could not go on sand or wood chips, she said other people may not understand the children’s limitations.

Part of the playground’s development involves educating the public, for instance, there were concerns voiced about having a fence surrounding the facility. Parents for Joy explained that the barrier was needed to stop some children from “eloping” a term that describes how cognitive challenged or special needs children may wander or run away from a caregiving facility or environment. Metal slides were also a point of contention that the group had to inform people about.

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“We put in stainless steel slides and people were very upset about it because it can get so hot, but they were put in for kids that have cochlear implants. If they went down a plastic slide, the static electricity would shock their implant and they would have to go back and get it fixed,” Sullivan explained. “I didn’t know that. That was something that I looked up.” 

The park did its best to negate the heat on the steel slides by avoiding facing them south, where they would be exposed to the most direct sunlight. Sullivan said Parents for Joy is always open to improve the fun area. Currently, the group is working on creating more shade for the facility.

In the past, parents like Allen who has one child with special needs did not have a place to go where the rest of her children could play together. Now she can take all of the kids to the playground and they all can play side by side and she does not have to worry about the special needs child being left behind. Sullivan said getting all types of children together helps facilitate interactions that may normally be missed.  

“It’s amazing to see, what we call typical children, playing alongside kids with different needs and just enjoying playing next to each other and making friends,” Sulliavan said.  

Parents for Joy celebrates two awards for its work to better the community. On Friday, Nov. 15 at its Fall Forum the California Park and Recreation Society’s Awards Program will recognize the organization for its outstanding contributions to the community. Also, Atascadero Chamber of Commerce named Parents for Joy the 2019 Community Organization of the Year. The recognition for the nonprofit’s outstanding achievements will be recognized on Jan. 25, 2020.