Born with a bilateral clubfoot, seven-year-old Craig Griffin hasn’t had the strength or mobility to swing by himself at a playground for most of his young life. And there wasn’t a playground in his community with the equipment he needed to climb into a swing and pump his legs, a slide he could skim down or a tower he could climb.

That will all change for the first grader, who will be one of the first children to try out a new inclusive playground that will open this fall in Caryville, Tennessee.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “The swings sound like fun, and the slides, too.”

Where there’s a need, there’s a … Leo-Lion club

The playground project was spearheaded by Caryville Cares, a Leo-Lion club that, although only two years old, has big plans to provide much-needed resources to their rural community in east Tennessee.

The 35-member club started with two goals: to give back to the community and to provide an opportunity for young professionals to network and build bonds.

“Our community was sorely lacking an opportunity for young professionals to get together,” says Lion Brandon Johnson, club president, who started the club and has led the playground project. “We had a lot of people who wanted to give back, but who didn’t know what to do.”

Birth of the idea

The idea for an inclusive playground came about because Johnson works with Craig’s father, Darrell Griffin, at an auto and tire repair shop. He knew that Craig, who at different times was in a wheelchair or wearing leg braces, had undergone numerous surgeries and had needed to relearn how to walk at least 10 times.

Johnson also had discovered that the closest inclusive playground for children with disabilities was about an hour’s drive away — too far for the Griffins and many other families to easily access.

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“I could see the struggle for Craig of not having a single place he could play with his brother, Dalton,” Johnson says.

“Having a mobility challenge in our family is not new for us,” says Craig’s mother, Kendra Griffin. “But it’s not really something that’s thought about by others [in many communities].”

Dr. Cheyenne Allen, a pediatric physical therapist who works with children with disabilities and a member of the Caryville Cares Leo-Lion Club, agreed with Johnson that there was a need for an inclusive playground.

“I’ve heard parents say they wish their children had some place to play where they would not get hurt and where they wouldn’t have to apologize to other parents if their child’s wheelchair got in the way or if their autistic child had a tantrum,” she says.

Assessing the community’s needs

Although an inclusive playground seemed like an important need, the members of Caryville Cares didn’t assume that an inclusive playground was what the community needed. Instead, they invested time in surveying residents and doing research. They learned that one in five people in Campbell County, where Caryville is located, has a disability.

“That’s double the national average,” Johnson notes.

They also learned that the county is home to many veterans living with disabilities and to older adults who are raising their grandchildren.

“We have grandparents and great-grandparents with mobility issues who’ve never been able to take their grandchildren to a park,” Johnson says. “Imagine trying to get a wheelchair over wood chips.”

To further determine their community’s needs, club members did in-person interviews and ran polls on social media — an information gathering process that Johnson says was crucial.

“You’ve got to look at your community,” Johnson says. “A lot of time you think you know your community, but you don’t.”

Doing their homework

The club also educated itself and the community about what an inclusive park is and what it would entail to build one.

An inclusive park is universally designed, which means it can be used by all people, and provides a sensory-rich environment that enables children to develop physically, socially and emotionally. It also creates play experiences that meet a variety of needs and interests.

“It’s a higher bar than even an ADA-accessible park,” Johnson says.

Collecting the funds

Building such a facility was no easy feat. The Leo-Lions needed to raise US$500,000 to see their dream come true.

They received a US$90,000 LCIF grant and planned various fundraisers, including a Christian comedy show, a “Dancing with the Stars”-style competition featuring local celebrities, dinners and roadside donation collections. They also set up a text-to-donate system so residents could make donations via their phones.

“We’ve done everything and anything you can think of to raise money,” says Johnson. “This has been 100% led by Leo-Lions. A team of young professionals — whose average age is 30 — has raised a half-million in cash.”

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Finding the land

Caryville Cares broke ground for the park in November 2022. The City of Caryville leased 1.5 acres to the club for US$1, a sign that the grateful Leo-Lion club had earned the support of the greater community and its leaders for the playground.

“We’re talking premier real estate [for the park site],” says Johnson. “Land next door is US$800,000 an acre.”

The deal Caryville Cares struck with the city called for the club to build the park and for the city to maintain it.

Building more than a playground

Caryville Cares Playground

The new playground is colorful and inviting, with a wide variety of equipment to meet the needs of all children. And Caryville Cares’ plans for the park are just beginning. They are also planning to include an inclusive Halloween celebration and Special Olympics events.

They see the playground as a place to bring the community together no matter their needs or abilities.

“This won’t just be a playground. It will be a hub for people with disabilities to be treated fairly,” Johnson says.

Uniting the community

Being a member of Caryville Cares and working on the playground project has been a learning experience for Allen, who often was called upon to speak to groups and organizations about the drive to build the playground.

She says working on the project has opened her eyes to how people in a small community can be galvanized to work toward a common goal that benefits the community overall.

“It’s helped me to realize that when you give people the opportunity to help — they take that opportunity,” Allen says. “It’s powerful to see how a small community can come together to create something for the greater good of everyone.”

Providing a safe space to play

Even though the playground has plenty of bells and whistles, some of its less showy elements, such as the soft, flat surface, is appreciated by Kendra Griffin. Previously, even a wrong step on gravel or wood chips could’ve meant an injury for Craig and a trip to the hospital.

She’s thrilled that Craig and 12-year-old Dalton can now play together — carefree and no longer needing anyone’s assistance.

“He can be independent [now],” she says of Craig. “And he won’t have to worry about getting hurt.”