Volunteers build Miracle League playground for disabled children at Petaluma park

More than 200 people spent about six hours building the playground on the western side of Lucchesi Park, where a long-awaited accessible baseball diamond is planned.|

A small army of volunteers on Saturday transformed an unused slice of east Petaluma's Lucchesi Park into a new playground designed to accommodate children with disabilities, the first step toward building a nearby accessible baseball field that advocates say will be the only one of its kind in Northern California.

More than 200 people spent about six hours constructing the bulk of the accessible playground on the western side of the park next to where the long-awaited baseball diamond is planned to debut next spring.

The playground's features, based on drawings from local children, will include a play structure with a ramp leading up to it, swings outfitted with plastic harnesses, wheelchair-friendly rubber surfacing and a “cozy dome” where children with autism and others can take a break from the business of playground activity. Similarly, the baseball field - which will be open to adults, too - will be designed for disabled players, with rubberized turf dugouts big enough for wheelchairs.

The $2 million project is spearheaded by Miracle League North Bay, the local branch of a national organization that brings accessible baseball to communities around the country. Petaluma's baseball diamond has been in the works for about three years, according to Jennifer Richardson, board president of the North Bay chapter.

Richardson, whose middle school-aged son has a disability, said she was “completely dumbfounded” to discover Northern California had no Miracle League field, but hundreds were in place in other parts of the United States, including Southern California. She characterized the playground as an important component of the project, since traditional playgrounds often pose numerous obstacles to disabled children.

“My child is not wheelchair bound, but when he was younger, he didn't have any trunk control, so for him to be safely able to go down a slide or to sit in a swing and hold himself up - that is not something he could physically do,” Richardson said. “All of these fun things that his siblings could do, he was stuck in the sandbox. That's one of the reasons we were all behind the playground in addition to the ballfield.”

Miracle League is developing the playground in partnership with KaBOOM, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that brings play activities to low-income communities. KaBOOM gathered input on the Lucchesi playground from around 20 children through Miracle League North Bay and a city of Petaluma summer program, according to project manager Amy Larson.

Children were asked to draw their “dream playgrounds,” and their ideas informed the final design, Larson said.

“It might just look like a regular playground, but it's designed so thoughtfully with kids with disabilities in mind that it's able to give them access and also still be engaging for (other) kids that don't have those same disabilities,” Larson said. “The hope is that kids come out here and they can play with their brothers and sisters and with all of their friends.”

Also partnering in the playground project is Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which sent about 50 volunteers to help build the facility Saturday. PG&E and KaBOOM, which partnered to fund the Petaluma playground, built 13 previous playgrounds together, officials said.

Miracle League chose Petaluma for the project because of its proximity to Highway 101 and Highway 37, with an estimated 50,000 children living less than 40 miles from the site, according to Richardson. And within Petaluma, Lucchesi Park was seen as the ideal spot, given its existing baseball diamonds and Little League operations, ease of access, proximity to school and lower-income neighborhoods and the ample space afforded by the spacious park.

Shirley Liu-Pascquia was among the dozens of Petaluma residents who helped build the playground Saturday. She was motivated to come out to support her community and because her daughter is a schoolmate of one of the Miracle League board members' children, who has a disability.

“We're very blessed to be a part of this,” she said. “It just gives everybody the same opportunity to be able to have the same experience.”

While most of the playground was put in place Saturday, the rubber surface and a shade structure will await installation, so the area might not open for two weeks or longer, Richardson said.

Miracle League North Bay still needs to complete fundraising for the baseball field but Richardson was confident the group would reach its goal. A fundraiser is planned for 4:30 p.m. Monday at Brewsters Beer Garden and Restaurant in Petaluma.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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