The Huffington Post has chosen Natalie Blakemore and Victoria Schmitt Babb as its "Greatest Person of the Day"—an honor recognizing people who confront issues in their community with creativity and passion.
Natalie Blakemore used to hate playgrounds.
The O’Fallon mother dreaded the monkey bars, slides and brightly colored play areas that were no fun for her three-year-old son Zachary.
A rare genetic central nervous system disease makes it difficult for Zachary to walk and speak. The playgrounds were making it tough for him to play with his friends without his mom right by his side.
Blakemore said park barriers and wood chips were another challenge: Zachary found it hard to make moves in his wheelchair or with his assistive walking device.
“We would play on playgrounds here and I’d have to get Zach out of his wheelchair and carry him around,” Blakemore said, adding this was embarrassing for Zach and off-putting for the other children. “It was really emotionally draining and I’d come up with any excuse to not take them to playground.”
Instead of excuses, Blakemore eventually found a solution--for Zachary and thousands of other kids in metro St. Louis.
The road to change
When Blakemore's sister-in-law suggested she check out a playground that was billed as “accessible to all” in the nation's capital, she was skeptical.
“I was angry at all the playgrounds because they claim to be accessible and they’re not,” she said.
But Blakemore became a believer on a 2002 trip to Washington, D.C. That's when the family first saw a playground with a rubber surface that Zachary could use his wheelchair on, and ramps in the play area so he could use the slides.
For the first time she watched her son interacting with his peers and having fun without her help.
When the Blakemore family headed home, the image of Zachary playing in the park stayed with Natalie.
She said she and her husband Todd thought about moving to Washington, D.C., but then she had a better idea: she would bring the playground to Zachary.
'Mom on a Mission'
Blakemore has a background in recreation management and experience fundraising with the Special Olympics. She thought it would be simple to raise money to build an all-inclusive playground in metro St. Louis.
After reaching out to several cities, in 2003 Blakemore got the green light for an inclusive playground at .
She teamed up with Zachary’s speech therapist Karena Romstad, and the pair began talking about their plans to local organizations.
They formed a board and began fundraising. Unlimited Play, Inc. was born as a non-profit organization to raise money, plan and build accessible playgrounds where children of all abilities can have fun.
Blakemore said raising money for the new organization turned out to be easier said than done. She originally thought the playgrounds would cost around $150,000 each but soon saw the price tag would be closer to $750,000 per site.
It took four years for Unlimited Play to raise funds for the first all-inclusive playground, but in April 2007, Zachary’s Playground finally opened.
Victoria Schmitt Babb, who joined Unlimited Play in 2004, described Blakemore as the “mom on a mission” who helped start an inclusive playground movement.
“Natalie saw the need and started it from her kitchen table,” Schmitt Babb said, adding initially Blakemore wanted to build one playground, but after receiving calls from all over the country, decided to keep building.
A playground For everyone
Unlimited Play has become a full-time job and passion for Blakemore and Schmitt Babb. They work together to raise money, design the playgrounds and spread a message of understanding differences through the universal language of play.
The women work from home, making phone calls and sending emails to groups across country as they raise money, write grants, and cultivate vendors and donors.
Today the organization has built in three parks, including in Lake Saint Louis, in Clayton and in O’Fallon.
Unlimited Play's next project is scheduled to be complete in spring 2012 in Jaycee Park in St. Charles.
Blakemore and Schmitt Babb say it’s important for people to understand Unlimited Play playgrounds are not just for children who struggle with disabilities.
“The whole point is for everyone to play together,” Natalie said.
Worth the trip
Kim Gibson makes the hour and a half drive from De Soto to Lake Saint Louis a few times a year to take her daughter Gracie, 12, to Zachary’s Playground.
Gibson said the playground makes it easy for Gracie, who has Cerebral Palsy, to move around and play.
“It empowers her and makes her feel like she’s not just a child in a wheelchair because she can play with kids who aren’t in wheelchairs,” Gibson added.
She said the playground is well worth the drive when she sees her daughter having fun and interacting with others in a safe place.
“As a parent, that just makes you happy, you want the best for your child and for her to be included and play in a way to bring people together,” she said. “There's one thing that’s universal and that’s a smile and that’s what these kids have when they’re playing together.”
About the playgrounds
Unlimited Play parks incorporate a number of all-inclusive features:
- ADA-accessible ramps
- a variety of climbing structures
- steel slides that are suitable for children with cochlear implants
- shade for children who have sensitive skin
- family-friendly restrooms
“It’s more than just a playground in so many ways,” Blakemore said.
Blakemore and Schmitt Babb personally work with vendors and contractors to create the most accessible play-areas possible. If they see something they think Zach or any other child would find difficult to play on, they go back to the drawing board.
“When you have a child who is critically ill in your life, whether you’re a mom, dad, aunt, sister, brother, you see life so differently," said Schmitt Babb. "It’s completely refocused on bigger things and not the little things people get bogged down with.”
As Unlimited Play continues to grow, so does its fan base. The playgrounds are popular sites for students on field trips, senior center outings and therapy professionals conducting sessions with patients.
By popular demand
Gibson hopes one day Unlimited Play can help bring a playground closer to home for Gracie. Blakemore and Schmitt Babb have received similar requests from parents across the country.
They said their vision for Unlimited Play includes expanding to schools, sponsoring field trips and uniting children of all abilities so they can learn from their differences.
“There’s so much of a need out there it’s just, how can we help and have the funding base as well?” Blakemore said.
SSM Rehabilitation Network recently teamed up with Unlimited Play to help raise money for Brendan’s Playground in O’Fallon.
Blakemore said it’s a struggle to raise money in this economy.
“Ideally we’d like to find a large corporate sponsor to help us go national and keep building,” she said.
Blakemore said the greatest message of Unlimited Play is to value all people, no matter their differences, and to take time to slow down and play.
“I can’t do anything to change my son’s disease. It will ultimately take his life no matter what I do, but I’ve found a way to give back,” Blakemore said. “I’ve watched these mothers fighting for their children and in the end it may not matter, but they can give back.”