Fort Daniel trying to build new special-needs playground

DACULA - Many of the fondest childhood memories are made on a playground, racing down a slide, jumping down a pole or swinging on monkey bars.

But for children with developmental disorders or physical handicaps, that kind of outdoor play can be difficult or even impossible.

That may soon change for special-needs kids at Fort Daniel Elementary School. A group of parents, teachers, administrators and business leaders are working together to try to build a new kind of playground: one that can accommodate almost any child, regardless of disability.

Lorrie Borem, whose son Dillon is in the pre-K program, has been working feverishly to try to build community ties and get donations for the new playground.

"You don't realize how important a playground is until you have a child in a special-needs program, and then you see the challenges these children encounter every day," Borem said. "And they need to be able to play. It's very important."

The new playground would include ramps that are wheelchair accessible, and focus on activities that help kids build balance and coordination. The panels would be of different textures to help kids who are visually impaired.

It would be located in a small area enclosed by a fence, allowing adults to keep closer watch over the kids. The play space would serve as a way for special-needs kids to develop their motor skills in an outdoor setting, said preschool autism teacher Leslie Trenbeath.

"It puts a smile on our faces every day to think that down the road, that we'll have this fenced in area and playground for the kids," Trenbeath said.

Already, many community and business leaders have agreed to help with the effort. Among those who have donated are the Richardson Housing Group, Lowell Pratt Communities and Nortap Associates. Several other businesses, including Home Depot and Kohl's at Hamilton Mill, have agreed to contribute equipment or volunteers.

At a PTA meeting on Thursday night, donors presented the school with checks ranging from $100 to $2,100. State Sen. Renee Unterman was one of the guests at the event, and District 3 Commissioner Mike Beaudreau also promised he would help the cause.

One of the the playground's biggest supporters is Chuck Warbington, executive director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District, who has agreed to match the donations of anyone he asks to contribute.

"There are over 40 kids that currently go to Fort Daniel that are special-needs, and there's not any equipment that provides for the special-needs kids. I just think this is a great idea that is going to help out the community and the school," Warbington said.

The current Fort Daniel playground is built for typical children from kindergarten to fifth grade. Though it would be available to older children, the focus of the new playground would be on the pre-K students, all of whom have special needs. On weekends, it would also be open to kids outside of the school.

Organizers estimate that the playground will cost between $30,000 and $40,000 to complete. They hope to finish the first phase of construction by the time the school reopens in the fall, but admit that could be wishful thinking. Because they won't be receiving any funding for it from the school system, they hope to get more community members and local businesses to contribute to the effort.

"It will serve and provide a location for our active 3- and 4-year-olds to have a safe place to play when they go outside for activities, where they can run and play and jump in an area that is safe, that is enclosed, that is monitored, where they can feel comfortable in doing everything from getting on the playground equipment to riding their big wheels," said Daundria Phillips, assistant principal of Fort Daniel.

To donate or volunteer to help build the new special-needs playground, call Lorrie Borem at 770-831-6346 or e-mail mlborem1@bellsouth.net.