Preston’s Playground breaks barriers and builds inclusivity

playground
courtesy of Nic DeCaire
Nic DeCaire builds a handicap accessible playground.

BY
STAFF REPORTER

For many, childhood brings to mind carefree days of kicking woodchips on playgrounds, jumping off of swings and tumbling down slides. However, for Deb Buenaga’s now 19-year-old son Preston, having fun on the playground was less of a laid-back afternoon activity and more of a frustrating, physically demanding chore.

“He wasn’t able to play in a regular playground setting. I was always the one up there playing with him, up there, helping him with it,” Buenaga says. “Nothing was 100 percent accessible for him. I was always the one that would have to adapt.”

Preston was born with mitochondrial disease, a genetic disorder that has made him reliant on a wheelchair for motion. As a child, Preston would struggle to move throughout the uneven, mulch-covered playgrounds and get onto equipment, which rarely, if ever, have ramps.

There was a social struggle as well — Buenaga remembers the other mothers sitting idly at the benches as she convinced children at the playground that Preston was just like them.

Despite this, Buenaga and her son were not deterred from being active. The two would enter races, and Buenaga would push Preston in an adaptive running chair. It was at one of these races that they met Nic DeCaire, the owner of Fusion Racing.

DeCaire and Buenaga were both interested in making physical activity more inclusive. Two years ago, they held a 5K to raise money to train physical education teachers at accommodating students with disabilities in their classes. The 5K was such a success that the two decided to hold another one. This time though, they wanted to raise money for a new cause.

“We thought, ‘What do we need here in Delaware?’” Buenaga says. Remembering the lack of accessibility she found on so many Delaware playgrounds, Buenaga decided that their next cause would be building an inclusive playground.

Throughout the 5K, as well as a series of other fundraising events and efforts — including grant writing, cookie selling on Main Street, race holding and hosting guest bartending events — Buenaga and DeCaire were able to raise nearly all of the $600,000 required to build the playground. They also recruited the help of outside organizations to assist with fundraising, including the university’s chapter of the Gamma Sigma Sigma sorority.

“Each semester Gamma Sigma Sigma elects a new philanthropy for us to spend the next semester raising money for,” sorority President and senior marketing major Dana Friedrich explains over email. “We were very attracted to Preston’s Playground because helping children of all abilities and funding a playground to allow them to have a normal childhood was something very different than our previous options and the ones that were also being presented that year.”

Gamma Sigma Sigma volunteered for a 5K fundraiser and were able to raise over $5,000 for the playground.

Buenaga and DeCaire plan on breaking ground during fall of this year on a plot of land near the Newark Reservoir. The park will feature a flat, rubber ground without curbs or barriers and handicapped accessibility on all playground equipment. They are also planning on building two fully functional, handicapped-accessible bathrooms on site.

So far, Buenaga and DeCaire have received an overwhelmingly positive response from the Newark community, especially from parents of disabled children.

“You see them with a sigh of relief, like ‘my child can actually do something normal for a change’. He’s not going to be different, he’s not going to be an outcast. That’s when you know you’re doing the right thing,” DeCaire says.

For Buenaga and DeCaire, this playground is one step of many in improving accessibility around the community and promoting messages of inclusion.

“We need to teach people that it’s okay to be a little different and that you should treat everyone the same,” DeCaire says. “This playground is a start for that, where it can happen.”

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