Last fall, Luling mother Hillary Sirmon embarked on an ambitious plan to build a playground accessible to disabled children. After raising $200,000 for the project in just five months, Sirmon joined with more than 100 volunteers this week to begin construction of the Destrehan wonderland where children with disabilities can interact with those who don’t have physical limitations.
Sirmon’s son, 2-year-old Benjamin, suffers from a rare genetic disorder called centronuclear myopathy that prevents his muscles from developing normally and results in extreme weakness. When Benjamin would visit parks with his three siblings, he was unable to play with them because his wheelchair couldn’t get close to the playground equipment.Sirmon has changed that with help from the St. Charles Parish community.
“I wouldn’t have gotten into this if I didn’t think this would be an extremely supportive community,” she said. “We were planning on fundraising for a year and then reassessing if the funds were there, but none of that had to be worried about because we raised the money in five months.”
Initial construction for the “Miracles to Milestones” playground includes equipment designed by Baton Rouge-based Total Recreation Products that will incorporate wheelchair ramps into the play area.
Yesterday, $50,000 worth of concrete donated by St. Charles Parish was poured and a rubberized surface will be added next week.
St. Charles Parish also donated the land for the playground, which will be located at the East Bank Bridge Park in Destrehan.
“This playground will not only be great for kids with different abilities, but also for the rest of our community to learn from our amazing kiddos,” Sirmon said. “There will be new connections, new friendships, and lessons of patience and love. We were not blessed with Benjamin to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ him. We were blessed with him to help build a connection among all children and families in our community.”
She said that by designing the playground to be accessible for all children, she hopes a deeper understanding of disabilities will be formed.
“If kids right now play with kids with disabilities, maybe in 20 years when they are making the political decisions they will say, ‘I remember Benjamin and this is someone I need to help.’” Sirmon said.
Several different organizations came together to help Sirmon raise the money needed for the playground. The Basketry in Luling provided 20 percent of one day’s profits for the project and Grand Ridge Golf Club held a golf tournament to raise money.
St. Charles Borromeo put on a race that raised $10,000 and Entergy pitched in with $25,000.
However, Sirmon said most of the money came from individual donations.
“Once everyone got the word out and once you got United Way involved, donations came in,” she said. “In January, we had all sorts of people wanting to call and do fundraisers and at the end of March we met the goal. We are thankful and in awe of their generosity.”
As far as Benjamin is concerned, when the project began he was just starting to learn sign language.
“He is using it more often. He is starting to point at things. He signs ‘music,’ ‘more’ and ‘all done,’” Sirmon said. “They are not correct all of the time, but we can understand what he is trying to get across and Benjamin lets us know what he needs and what he is thinking.”
Soon Benjamin will receive a computerized aid that will help him communicate with his family even more.
“We are in the process of getting him a communication device where he can touch buttons and it will communicate for him,” Sirmon said.
While he was the catalyst for the playground’s construction, Benjamin will not get too many opportunities to enjoy the new park as his family is relocating to West Monroe.
“It went much faster than we expected and luckily so because my husband took a job in north Louisiana. On June 20 we move, so it could not have worked out any better,” Sirmon said.
The first thing Sirmon did when the family decided to move was investigate disabled playgrounds in the area. She was happy to find out one was already under way in their new community.
“West Monroe is in the planning process of putting in a handicapped playground next year,” she said. “I am glad that the word is spreading on making playgrounds accessible for all kids. I was already looking at doing this again.”