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Six-year-old Easton Griffith, of Bradenton, enjoys a swing at Tom Bennett Park with his mother, Jennifer Griffith, club president of the Rotary Club of West Bradenton.
East County Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 5 years ago

Rotary unites for improved parks

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Clubs plan three all-inclusive playgrounds in Manatee County. AND East County's Bennett Park will receive improvements.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

Six-year-old Easton Griffith and his cousin, Nathan Griffith, were born just six weeks apart, but as they’ve gotten older, there’s only a few public places they can actually play together.

Easton, who suffers from spina bifida, does what he can in his wheelchair, but most park facilities have limited accommodations.

“There was nowhere my mom (Nancy Griffith) could take them both and they could play side by side” Easton’s mom, Jennifer Griffith said.

Over the past year, the dilemma has turned into inspiration for change.

Manatee County’s seven Rotary Clubs have pulled together to form Rotary’s Suncoast Playground Projects Inc., to fund and construct three barrier-free inclusive playgrounds in Manatee County. It’s the first time in more than 20 years that all Manatee’s Rotary Clubs joined together for a single project.

“We saw a need,” said Bill Porter, the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch president about why the club got involved. “There’s no (public) park in Manatee County that can help these children. There should be at least one park where you can take special needs children and they can play with their friends.”

The first playground to deal with those barriers will be at west Bradenton’s G.T. Bray Park, the county’s most heavily utilized park facility. The next will be East County’s Tom Bennett Park, at 400 Kay Road, Bradenton. The third will be at Parrish’s Buffalo Creek Park. 

Project costs are estimated at $1.8 million to be raised by the Rotary Club’s Suncoast Playground Projects Inc., which is awaiting its nonprofit status.

Rotary will lead the fundraising charge, looking for major donations first. Suncoast Playground Projects group members hope to build one park a year for the next three years.

Each park would have a theme to make it a destination. G.T. Bray’s is “sea life,” while Bennett Park’s will be “ranch life” and Buffalo Creek’s is “fossils.”

The idea for the inclusive playground started last year at the Rotary Club of West Bradenton, when Jennifer Griffith’s mother, Nancy Griffith, spoke to the club about her challenges taking both grandsons into public play areas. The club determined it would tackle the issue. But when leadership presented their plans to other Rotary Club leaders at a training event in April, the idea won the support of Manatee’s six other clubs. It grew from one $600,000 project to a three-park $1.8 million project.

“It was a natural evolution,” said Judy Bennett, the committee’s Rotary Club of Manatee Riverside representative. “If we were going to dream, why don’t we dream big?”

Suncoast Playground Projects Inc. members will present their plans to the Manatee County Commission in March and announce details of their proposed partnership with the county. Commissioners must sign off on the plans because the county will incur some expenses for site preparation and other related costs.

Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker is thrilled with the idea. Rotary’s plans will be bolstered by visions his department already had for improving the parks and playground systems through revenue from the new half-cent infrastructure sales tax. While Rotary’s initiative will target play areas for children, Manatee County will come along with activities for other ages.

“We have long recognized the need to provide the kind of exercise opportunities where entire families, both young and old of all abilities, can play together,” Hunsicker said. “Our desire is to continue — furnish and install play equipment suitable for adults and seniors, again keeping in mind that you don’t grow out of a disability with age. Our partnership is to springboard off this very welcomed and needed Rotary initiative and provide life-cycle equipment for all ages. We want our playgrounds to be play for all ages and abilities. Variety there is the key.”

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