The formal opening of the city’s first inclusive playground, at Hawthorne Park in the Billings Heights, couldn’t come soon enough for Brittiany Anton, a park neighbor, and her children and their friends.
“We’ve been here every day, asking the city to please get this in as fast as possible,” she said Friday as elected and parks officials prepared to celebrate the park’s opening, about two weeks after the park’s unofficial soft opening. “It’s safer, it’s age-appropriate – and it’s fun.”
Parks personnel distributed flying discs to the two dozen or so children gathered during the noon hour for the park’s official opening. Following a brief ceremony, children got Mayor Bill Cole and Councilman Larry Brewster, who represents Heights residents, to autograph their new swag. The two men said they felt like rock stars.
“This is the first time anyone’s ever asked for my autograph,” Brewster said.
The new equipment, paid for in part by a $125,000 Land and Water Conservation Fund grant as well as a local match, allows children with disabilities — an estimated 10 to 12 percent of children in Billings, said Mark Jarvis, a parks planner — to play on the same equipment enjoyed by able-bodied children.
In addition to pairs of swings that face one another, a two-story merry-go-round, a rocking device and a ropes climb, the park also features a small igloo-like structure where children along the autism spectrum can go for a little peace and quiet.
Jarvis designed the plan for how the new equipment was laid out. Hawthorne Park will now serve as a model for future playground equipment replacement, said Parks Superintendent Mike Pigg.
“Every time we build a new playground, it will have inclusive elements,” Pigg said. “Kids should be able to play right alongside one another.”
Cole told the assembled children parks are places for “getting fit, staying healthy and having fun.”
“Great cities are great,” he said, “because they have great parks.”
“It’s important to share our parks. This one is designed so that people in a wheelchair or who have other physical problems can enjoy it,” Cole said.
To the list of people for whom Cole asked children to applaud, the mayor added “your parents and other taxpayers, because none of this would be possible without them.”
“We still have a lot more to do,” he said, “because a lot of kids don’t have a park in their neighborhood.”
Brewster told children that when he moved to Billings 35 years ago, one of the first things he did was take his children to Hawthorne Park. Those children now have children of their own, he said — and those children come to Hawthorne Park when they’re visiting their grandfather.
“Having this nice new playground makes it an even better park,” Brewster said. “I hope you enjoy it for a long time.”
Once 8-year-old Keegan Romero had cut the ceremonial ribbon, children seemed a little unsure what was next. Cole had a ready answer.
“Go play!” the mayor told some of his youngest constituents. And they did.