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Fair Play

By Carolyn Jung

Olenka Villarreal is the brain behind the Magical Bridge Playground, the all-inclusive Palo Alto children’s sanctuary inspired by her daughter. Photo by Spencer Brown.

Palo Alto’s Olenka Villarreal is on a mission to bring inclusive recreational spaces designed for all ages and abilities — to more communities.

It’s telling that two play areas in Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park are as deserted as a ghost town. After all, they’re just not where the magic is. To get to the place of real enchantment requires a short stroll across a bright-blue bridge nearby. That’s where the aptly named Magical Bridge Playground can be found, where even on a frigid afternoon darkened by ominous clouds, nearly two dozen kids of all ages and abilities are swinging, spinning, sliding and laughing their hearts out. This all-inclusive playground with features like no other is the first of its kind in the Bay Area. And it was the dream of one Palo Alto mom, Olenka Villarreal.

“These days, there is so much exclusion,” says Villarreal. “But everyone should be able to enjoy the experience of playing, socializing and being in a community. This is a town square for the 21st century.”

It took far more than “abracadabra” to create this fenced playground that groups activities into seven zones with descriptions in Braille. It includes a fully accessible, custom playhouse; a merry-go-round level with the ground so wheelchairs can access it; high-back bucket swings for added safety; three types of slides including one with built-in rollers to slow descent; a captivating 24-string laser harp that plays notes as visitors pass through its beams; thoughtful quiet spaces where children can retreat; and “kindness ambassadors,” local teens who keep an eye out to ensure all children feel welcome.

It took this 54-year-old mother of two daughters seven years of unwavering determination, exhaustive research and $4 million worth of fundraising to bring this to fruition in 2015. Now, the Magical Bridge Playground (magicalbridge.org) — which attracts about 20,000 visitors a month, with some traveling from as far as Sacramento or even overseas — is set to expand its reach. Through its Magical Bridge Foundation and a commitment of up to $6.1 million from the RedwoodCity City Council, it is building a Magical Bridge Playground in Redwood City’s Red Morton Park, which is expected to open by the end of this year. That will be followed by similar ones in Sunnyvale, Morgan Hill and Mountain View. Additionally, Palo Alto will install a less custom, more economical version of the playground at all its elementary schools, starting with Addison Elementary.

The oldest child of a pharmaceutical executive and a homemaker, Villarreal grew up in Palo Alto and Vienna, where she noticed that parks in Europe are used primarily by seniors. A graduate of Pomona College in public policy and economics with an MBA from Golden Gate University, Villarreal worked for 18 years in marketing and sales at Silicon Valley tech companies, including Siemens, where she met her husband. She never thought she’d find herself in the role of pioneering community activist, but in a way, it was the culmination of all her preceding experiences that set the stage for it.

Life changed when her younger daughter Ava was born 16 years ago. She remains completely nonverbal and needs supervision around the clock. When Ava was 4, experts advised Villarreal to swing her because the movement would help develop her sense of balance. But the only facility Villarreal could find with swings secure enough for Ava was in South San Jose, and it was so busy already, she was limited to visiting only one day a week. That’s when Villarreal knew she had to do something.

All Palo Alto playgrounds comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Generally, that means they are accessible by wheelchair. However, as Villarreal notes, 93 percent of Americans with disabilities are not wheelchair users. That means that standard playgrounds might not be fully attuned to the needs of those with autism or auditory or visual impairments.“The way the parks were being created was very inadequate,” she says. “We wanted to show you can create a park where everyone will come out and play.”

With Palo Alto donating nearly an acre in Mitchell Park, Villarreal made it a reality. After seeing photos online, Naomi Gomez brought her 6-year-old son Eric to Magical Bridge Playground for the first time recently, driving half an hour from San Jose. “It was worth the trip!” she says, after watching her son, who has ADHD and learning disabilities, giggling on a saucer swing. Because her son is prone to running off, especially after dogs, she is especially grateful that this playground is fully fenced. “It’s a safe space for kids, and it’s very stimulating. It gives him a lot of things to keep his attention.”

Ali Serbest’s two daughters Melike, 8, and Ruby, 13, and son Sami, 2, don’t have disabilities. Yet this remains their favorite playground, where they play together every week. “There should be more playgrounds like this with so much thought behind them,” he says

Villarreal hopes the magic will continue to spread. “We want people to come just because they like the playground,” she says. “If you happen to have a disability, we want you to come and think, ‘Oh, someone thought of me.’ It’s a place so magical that it bridges the gap between those with and without. It’s a place where everyone feels they belong.”

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