Childhood is a magical time. There are so many new things to be discovered, experienced, and explored, each helping to sculpt and develop the mind of an innocent, fresh-out-of-the-box new human. From the simple joy of parading around on a playground to major milestones like high school prom, a child’s life is rich with opportunities for both growth and fun alike. However, many children are unable to participate in such basic activities due to physical disabilities — approximately 5.4% of kids aged five to 17 have a disability of some kind.
Fortunately, there are people out there willing to put in the hard work and dedication (both financial and physical) to ensure these children still have access to the same activities and experiences as their able-bodied peers. One family in Tennessee spent three years fundraising an all-inclusive playground after losing their daughter, Mary McAuley, to complications from cerebral palsy. Rachel McAuley, Mary’s mother, worked with several other community members and were finally able to open Mary’s Magical Place this past September.
“If you have a child with special needs, you just want them to have all those opportunities as much as you can, so it’s wonderful,” said Carol Sudekum whose teenage daughter Jennifer also has cerebral palsy. “This is a wonderful thing,” she remarked as Jennifer giggled in joy. “You can see it on her face.”
Mary’s Magical Place provides a fun, safe place for those with both physical and learning disabilities: “No matter if they were in wheelchairs, on the autism spectrum or able-bodied, there were no barriers.” Since playgrounds last between seven to 10 years if they’re properly maintained, the location is sure to bring delight to kids for years to come.
However, the U.S. sees two million new wheelchair users every year, and inclusive playgrounds don’t quite serve all of their needs. Considering the fact that being a teenager is hard enough even when you’re fully physically and mentally capable, life is much more difficult for those with any kind of limitations. Prom is the pinnacle of the teenage experience: kids get the opportunity to have fun on their own for the first time, bonding with their friends and dressing to the nines for their first foray into adulthood. Although there are more than 130,000 limo services in existence in the U.S., not many of them are equipped to handle wheelchairs or special needs.
Again, this is where community involvement comes in. Tiana Freeland, a senior at a Fresno high school, realized her special needs sisters were not going to be able to experience the thrill and ultimate teenage joy of prom — so she decided to organize her own inclusive version called An Evening To Treasure. This year, it drew over 150 students between the ages of 15 and 21.
“This is an event that brings together the community to celebrate them and who they are, their personalities rather than their disabilities.”
The event meets any needs and desires the students have — disability-friendly, classy rides are arranged (this year they had a Rolls Royce); hair, makeup, and shoe shining/tiaras are offered upon arrival; dress and tux fittings are performed ahead of time, and all at no cost to families that may already be struggling with medical bills.