Iowa Kiwanians create an inclusive playground with help from community friends.
Story By Kasey Jackson • Photos by Scott Morgan
Take a stroll through Pella, Iowa, a town in the midwestern United States, and you may feel like you’ve been thrown back in time — and place.
Pella was settled in 1847 by Dutch immigrants, and the town is filled with reminders of its past. There’s the Pella Opera House, built in 1900, and the popular Vermeer Mill, a windmill built sometime in the 1850s that — imagine this — is the tallest windmill in the United States. And it still works. There’s even a canal and a full-size working drawbridge.
And if you’re lucky enough to be in Pella in early May, you’ll encounter the annual Tulip Time Festival.
This celebration of Dutch heritage features tons and tons of colorful tulips, great food, music, countless pairs of wooden shoes, parades and craft booths. You’ll even be able to pick up a bit of the Dutch language, which is still spoken by some of its 10,000 or so residents to this day.
But wait. There’s more.
Specifically, there’s another windmill. And more tulips. And children in Dutch costumes. All of this is found at Wonder Spelen (which translates to Miracle Play), a playground that started as a dream — and was completed in reality thanks to the Kiwanis Club of Pella.
Well, it really all started with the poffertjes.
“Each year at Tulip Time, our club generates a nice profit from our poffertjes stand,” says Fred Kreykes, Pella Kiwanian and Wonder Spelen board member.
Poffertjes are small, fluffy Dutch pancakes (see above) the Kiwanis club is known for making at the Tulip Time Festival, where about 200,000 visitors celebrate Pella’s Dutch heritage.
“The board often asks the members for suggestions as to how we should spend our profits,” Kreykes says.
In 2018, the answer was: Make a huge improvement to Pella’s already-established Kiwanis Park by adding an all-inclusive playground.
To help plan the playground and choose the right equipment, the club set up an advisory committee of parents and teachers of children with special needs. That proved to be a good idea.
“Without exception, everyone is very complimentary of the Wonder Spelen playground,” says Kreykes, who was one of the club members who recommended the new playground. “Children and families come from all over to enjoy it.
“The surface is very safe and user-friendly, even for toddlers. The bright colors are eye-catching. Every community should have an inclusive playground.”
Mark Wiskus, a Pella Kiwanian who has a daughter with special needs, immediately stepped up to help Kreykes make the playground happen. He remembers the conversations that club members and the advisory committee had with families regarding how important it is for all kids to have a safe place to play.
“Every time we met to discuss our plan, we considered what the playground needed to ensure that families with special needs felt valued,” Wiskus says. “Most playgrounds don’t have swings or slides for kids with walkers or wheelchairs. Non-typical kids often have no choice but to sit and watch while other kids get to play. It was important for me that we build a playground where all kids can have fun and play together.”
Wonder Spelen advisory committee member Angie Geetings offered a unique perspective as an elementary special education teacher in the Pella Community School District.
“I serve students with varying needs such as academics, behavior and motor skills, as well as communication and health,” Geetings says. “I see that it’s important that kids have the opportunity to play, as it improves social skills and motor skills. Kids want and need to be interactive with others and the environment.”
Like the Pella club members, she has heard good things from the community — particularly from families of students both past and present.
“They’re so excited that Pella has an adaptive park that serves as a place for all kids to play and interact,” Geetings says. “It’s a beautiful addition to Pella and filled with top-notch equipment. Kiwanis has been so giving and have worked hard to make this dream come true.”
The Kiwanis Club of Pella officially opened the playground — built with Kiwanis International partner Landscape Structures — with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in October 2021. Families, community leaders, Kiwanis members and some very excited kids enjoyed a day in the sun. All playing together.
“Seeing kids playing on the equipment, it’s hard to believe we were able to accomplish all we set out to do in just two years,” Wiskus says. “And watching kids who had never been able to be on a swing before, and how emotional some of the parents were in those moments, was incredible.”
HOW WE DID IT
Here’s a detailed look at our process for building the playground.
Submitted by the Kiwanis Club of Pella, Iowa, USA
When we initially considered this project in the fall of 2018, we knew it would take a team of dedicated individuals to make this project come together. The first thing we did was reach out to specific community members to create a Board of Directors and an Advisory Committee to help us determine what would best serve our community. We looked at the pros and cons of various locations for the playground, carefully considered what kind of equipment would best suit the community’s needs and determined what playground features were essential for families with special needs. We visited multiple miracle (inclusive) playgrounds and spoke with their parks departments to learn what worked — and what didn’t.
By June 2019, we had a solid vision of what we wanted to build. We approached the City of Pella about our three-phase plan to expand Kiwanis Park. After receiving their support, Wonder Spelen applied for 501(c)(3) status, created a logo and began creating marketing materials to start fundraising.
By September 2019, we had secured a 28E partnership agreement with the city.
Under the agreement, Wonder Spelen committed to donating the playground to Pella, which would then be responsible for the maintenance and care of the playground as part of the City Parks program. The agreement included an outline of the anticipated cost, the master plan study, an agreement with a city-approved engineering contract, the process for construction letting, the scheduled construction period and a project completion plan for Fall 2021.
The agreement also included a level of financial support from the city, which then built that support into its annual budget prior to approval.
Of course, the most important part was figuring out how to raise the remaining funds.
The Pella Kiwanis Club holds a great fundraiser during our annual three-day Tulip Festival every May. Typically, we net US$30,000-40,000 annually through this fundraiser. We knew that we had to allocate some of those funds for the playground project, but we didn’t want to take away from the organizations we financially support on an annual basis. With that in mind, we determined that our club would make a significant contribution to the Wonder Spelen playground — but would have to raise 90% of the remaining cost outside our club’s contribution.
As the chair of the project, I felt optimistic about the support that we would get from the community for a project like this. As with any fundraising campaign, we knew that we wanted to raise at least 70% of the funds through direct “asks” before we went to the public.
Our first step was to compile a list of all the possible corporate donors in our community of 10,000 people. We started with the most obvious ones — the large corporations that have donated to other major projects in our community — and then included the smaller businesses that may be emerging or wanting to gain more visibility.
Next, we created a list of all the foundations and grant opportunities that we felt would fit with our project. With nearly 100 businesses and 30 grant applications on our list, we appealed to several community members to help with the project by writing grants. We also asked members of the community to make introductions for the club members who would meet with potential donors to share our project.
After learning that some foundations require 100% financial participation from members before they will even consider supporting projects, we required that level of participation from our own club of 25 members.
A timeline was set to have completion of the playground in the fall of 2021, so we offered a three-year pledge option to our donors. This fostered larger financial support because we gave donors the ability to fulfill their gift over three years. This also made it easier for a business to incorporate a three-year pledge into their annual budget rather than a one-time gift.
We created a PowerPoint presentation to educate community members, businesses and organizations about what we were building.
In fact, we found that several corporations had a foundation or charitable giving division that allowed us to present our project and ask for financial support through their corporate giving team.
We also presented the project to area clubs, service groups and nonprofit organizations who simply wanted to know what we were building. These were opportunities for those groups to learn — and for our club to see whether they wanted to support the project or how they could help.
For example, we presented the project to the Pella Garden Club, which helped us design the landscaping, select native plants and plant trees, shrubs and flowers that were best suited for our project. The Pella Knights of Columbus also joined us in fundraising through their annual telethon and provided labor for the landscaping portion.
Along with our presentation, we created two brochures that provided pictures and cost projections for the three-phase building plan. One contained a tear-off pledge card for donors to return to us with their financial support. The other was a larger booklet that was geared toward larger donors — people who were likely to be more interested in the details of each phase, as well as the people involved, the community impact of the project and how their donation would be recognized on the donor wall at the playground.
With the popularity of social media, we maintained a Facebook page with information and pictures each week of the project. People loved the photos and videos of the construction process and used Facebook to find out how they could donate to the project. We included multiple ways to contact us, did a Facebook fundraiser and provided a Venmo QR code for people to donate.
As people learned about the project, more presentations were given and more gifts were received than we had anticipated. We were amazed at how generously the community supported Wonder Spelen.
In fact, their dedication helped us achieve incorporation of all three phases of our project in two years. As a result, we officially opened the Wonder Spelen playground at Kiwanis Park on October 16, 2021.
If you feel inspired to build an all-inclusive playground or other major project in your community, we hope you will find these tips helpful in making your project a success:
- Create your team. Teamwork makes the dream work! Create a team of people who are dedicated to the purpose and mission of your project. Invite those who may offer a unique perspective or who have an inside track on what your community needs.
- Do your research. Learn from those who have blazed the trails before you. Ask what worked and what they would do differently. Contact leaders in your community to find out who you should include in the project. Ask whether they would work with you to create a detailed plan for your project’s success.
- Focus on timelines. Plan carefully and communicate your timeline from start to finish. Be sure that all parties involved are working on the same timeline and clearly communicate what that means for each person involved.
- Look for funding opportunities. Think outside the norm regarding foundations or grant opportunities. Ask for help from grant writers and those who can make personal introductions. Look at the donor walls from other area projects and share information about your project with the people you see there.
- Make a splash! Raise public awareness of what you’re doing. Let the public know when major milestones will be achieved and how they can be a part of it. Highlight big moments, such as the groundbreaking, with pictures and videos, and share them through social media, radio and local news channels.
- Stay connected with donors. Send thank you letters for each donation received, then follow up with a separate end-of-year tax deduction letter for each donor. Invite them to the ribbon-cutting ceremony and make sure that you graciously acknowledge each contribution to the project.
- Communicate consistently with people. Everybody wants to get behind projects that make them feel good — and they feel good when they’re doing things that benefit both their community and themselves personally. So let them know what’s happening! Share updates about where the project stands in the timeline. Invite people to be a part of things and to share in the goodness you’re bringing to their community.
Courtesy of the Kiwanis Club of Pella
This story originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine