McDonald family fights to build playground in Proctor for disabled children

Troy McDonald and his four-year-old daughter, Emma. Emma has suffered from spina bifida since birth. Photo courtesy of Troy McDonald Troy McDonald flips through pictures on his iPod of his daughter, Emma, dancing. She twirls and spins with the grace that only a four-year-old girl could have.

“She’s kind of a miracle,” McDonald said. “Her legs below her knees don’t operate so the doctors said she wouldn’t be able to walk, but look at her now, dancing away.”

You can almost feel her energy through Troy McDonald’s description, and without his explanation you never would’ve guessed his youngest child was born with spina bifida.

According to Mayo Clinic’s website, spina bifida forms when “a portion of the neural tube fails to develop or close properly, causing defects in the spinal cord and in the bones of the backbone.”

Emma had surgery immediately after she was born. Doctors were able to fix her spine, but she will always have to wear leg braces.

“This really changed our lives,” McDonald said. “It was one of those ‘Welcome to Holland’ moments.”

Because Emma has such an energetic spirit, McDonald and his wife Jennifer’s main concern was to find a safe place for her to play outside.

“She can’t safely play on a normal playground,” he said.

This setback has been the driving force for the McDonalds’ plan to build a boundary-free playground that is safe for children with any kind of physical or mental disability.

This family has created a nonprofit group called Proctor’s Playground for EveryBODY and have plans to build in Proctor, Minn.

“Nowhere in the upper Midwest has a facility like this,” McDonald said. “Places out East that do, though, draw over 200,000 people a year.”

This is the computer generated plan for the boundary-free playground that will start being built in Proctor this spring. Image courtesy of Proctor’s Playground for EveryBODY

The premise of the playground is that “every child will be able to get to the highest tower on this boundary-free playground,” according to the group’s Facebook page. “Children learn by playing, and every child deserves to play on a playground that is designed for them.”

The family has gotten the support of the community through numerous fundraisers to help fund this unique recreational area.

“Dance Marathon was Emma’s favorite,” McDonald said. “But we also are a part of March of Dimes, the Bridesmaids Ball, and we even did a Penny Drive at the local elementary schools that rose over $1,000.”

The city of Proctor has been supportive of this project, donating $30,000 and the land to build the playground.

Proctor City Administrator Jim Rohweder said in a telephone interview that there was no question to team up with McDonald and his family for this project.

“We want all children to be able to climb ladders and enjoy our parks like everyone else can,” Rohweder said. “There are a lot of kids in the area that have disabilities, so it’s important to have parks that are accessible to them.”

The idea came to McDonald back in 2009 and it’s taken the past two years to finally get the project rolling. Through grants and other donations, they have enough money gathered to begin building this spring.

“With what we have planned it’s going to cost between $200,000 and $250,000,” McDonald said.

They still are in process of applying for more grants.

“Groundbreaking will begin soon and we plan on building half of it this year and the other half the next,” he said. “We are working only with volunteers and various construction companies who have offered to donate their resources and time.”

When the playground is complete it will be available to all children, whether they are disabled or not.

“When talking with other parents at therapy sessions or at Emma’s preschool, all of them are really excited about the project,” McDonald said. “When we were doing our preliminary research we found that 10 to 12 percent of children have a disability and would benefit from this playground.”

While this playground cannot fix Emma’s legs, it will give her an opportunity to finally be able to play with all of her friends.

“She has a lot of good friends from therapy and we are lucky for that,” McDonald said. “I’m worried what the future will hold, but I’m hoping that her older brothers will protect her if anything bad happens out on the playground.”

Emma has a lifetime ahead of her that will be filled with surgery, doctor’s visits and braces around her legs. This playground is her chance to run and play with her friends, escaping the hardships that this world puts on all of us.

“She is a loving little girl who has learned to handle her disability better than anyone else,” McDonald said.

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