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  1. Pasco

Kids with special needs to get their own playground in Pasco County

DADE CITY — As a father of three and a youth soccer, baseball and flag football coach, Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore said he has spent "sometimes five or six days a week'' at the Wesley Chapel District Park.

Beyond the chalk lines and turf, he noticed a void. Pasco County does not have an inclusive playground for children with special needs. The nearest one is 25 miles away.

"We want kids to be able to participate together — all kids,'' Moore said Monday.

So he took his idea to both the county Department of Parks and Natural Resources and to the private sector, asking companies and nonprofits to help put an inclusive playground at the Wesley Chapel District Park, one of the centerpieces of the county's park system. He hit pay dirt with Lennar Foundation, the Rotary Club of Wesley Chapel and AdventHealth Wesley Chapel, which donated a combined $110,000 for the playground.

On Tuesday, commissioners formally accepted the contributions, thanked the groups for their generosity and also transferred $215,000 in public money toward the project.

The Rotary Club, which donated $35,000 and pledged $15,000 more, also will maintain a butterfly garden adjacent to the playground. It's one of the largest projects tackled by the 14-year-old club.

"It really fit into Rotary's core fundamentals of improving communities and helping with education,'' said Chris Casella, president of the Wesley Chapel Rotary.

Accessibleplayground.net, the web site for Let Kids Play, a consultant helping communities devise universally accessible playgrounds, lists only two such playgrounds in the region — one in Temple Terrace and another in south Tampa.

Of every 1,000 people age 3 to 21, approximately 85 have special needs and almost half of that group have cognitive disabilities, according to information from Pasco County. The Pasco County School District said it has more than 16,000 students with special needs.

A universally inclusive playground could include a low-to-the-ground merry-go-round with individual seats that children can access easily, or a set of large bucket-seat swings with over-the-shoulder protective harnesses spaced far enough apart for a wheelchair to fit beside the seat. It also could feature sound-emitting toys or musical instruments to provide auditory stimulation. The playground would be built atop a special foam-type surface next to an existing playground.

A final design and cost have not been determined, said Keith Wiley, director of the county parks department. Moore said it could break ground on the playground project in about 60 days.

"It's a place for kids to participate and not sit on the sidelines,'' said Moore. "It's a place to take away social barriers.''

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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