Rhinebeck’s Lions Club Mini Park is moving towards a big update, and organizers want the community to help shape it. A joint effort between the Village of Rhinebeck, the Lions Club, and the village’s Autism Supportive Community Committee (ASCC) is planning and fundraising to install an inclusive, sensory-friendly, all-ages playground.
The Lions Club has invited community members to share their hopes, concerns, and expertise with the project leaders at a meeting at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Brogan Center Gym at 6 Mulberry St.
“It’s the only Village of Rhinebeck park,” said Rhinebeck Village Mayor Gary Bassett, who also serves on the ASCC. “This is why it’s important to make sure that it’s accessible for everyone to use.”
The effort brings the organizing groups into a three-way partnership. The Lions Club will continue its decades-long history of maintaining the park; the ASCC will continue its efforts to make the village an inclusive place for those with mental and physical disabilities; and the Village of Rhinebeck will open up funding opportunities.
Scott Davis, a Lions Club member who has spearheaded community involvement, said he wants to bring his professional experience as a creative director to the project and allow the community to pitch ideas for the park “Shark Tank-style.”
“Why don’t we put feelers out and call it a design challenge?” he said of his thought process. “Everyone has a weird and interesting idea.”
Opening up to the community, he says, will help make the playground more than a generic play space, turning it into something that better fits the specific vision of Rhinebeck residents. He referenced community members with backgrounds as designers, artists, architects, and civil and industrial engineers, all of whom could contribute to the project’s final form.
That vision is expected to feature new equipment that is sensory-friendly, meaning that alongside playground staples like swings and slides, there would be areas that help neurodivergent or sensitive children calm themselves when they are overstimulated. Those areas could feature a wall spackled with various textures, often something bumpy, or benches that have pleasant textures on the seat, instead of typical wood or metal slats.
“Those simple changes can be very, very impactful for families that otherwise feel isolated,” explained Eliza Bozenski, the Chief Development Officer for the Anderson Center for Autism, which has worked extensively with ASCC. “But it has to be safe. You might have a child who’s happy swinging on a swing or sliding down a slide, but then gets overstimulated and needs something to help self-regulate and calm down.”
The playground classics can also be optimized for inclusivity. Bozenski mentioned swings, which can be designed for people with disabilities, featuring larger seats or seat belts for children.
The playground will also be age-inclusive, appealing to older children and even adults who can benefit from sensory and social stimuli. “We want to ensure that it’s not just youth equipment, that it’s equipment that’s basically usable by everybody, to address neurodiversity and social and emotional needs in addition to the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act],” added Bassett.
With more diverse equipment, said Bozenski, families will be comfortable spending significantly longer amounts of time socializing at the park.
“With thought, care, and a little focus, and maybe with a little professional help, you can really change a child’s life, in terms of being able to go and have fun in a playground in their community,” she added.
The old equipment at the 50-by-50 foot square playground area had fallen into disrepair and was a safety concern, according to Bassett. Some of the existing equipment elsewhere in the park also needs repair or updates to be ADA-compliant, he said.
But any kind of new equipment is expensive, with even basic playground structures costing around $50,000, said Davis. While the Lions Club has raised around $9,000 of its $75,000 goal, the Village of Rhinebeck will apply for a Community Development Block Grant from Dutchess County, which can run up to $125,000. Davis said that if the village receives the grant, it could pour a bouncy, rubber surface underneath the playground, a safer alternative to typical wood chips, and still have funds for the equipment.
The grant is competitive, with about $1 million in total funds open to any community in Dutchess County that serves low-to-moderate-income populations. Rhinebeck received the grant last year to remove barriers on Center Street that were not ADA-compliant. That project is currently underway.
The village just received initial approval from the county to submit a full grant application by Oct. 20. The panel of 11 organizers is working with the village to pull together details for the proposal.
“I don’t want to just go after the money,” added Bassett. “We want to be partners in this.”
If the village receives the grant, funding would arrive sometime in January, so organizers said they hope the project could be completed before 2024.
“This will be a much-needed and desired improvement to the park,” said Bassett. “We’re really focusing on making anything we put in there available for people who have any type of neurodiversity issues, like autism or social needs, to be able to use that same equipment.”