Everyone can play

Mom’s dream for daughter comes true, thanks to Kiwanis and community.

When members of the Kiwanis Club of Pella, Iowa, decided to build a playground, they knew they wanted one thing above all else: to create a place where everyone could play. A place where kids who used walkers or wheelchairs could swing next to kids who didn’t. They wanted to build a playground that fostered unity and equality. A place where moms and dads could feel proud to bring their kids no matter their physical abilities. 

And that’s exactly what they did. 

By teaming up with experts and parents of children with special needs, the Kiwanis club was able to create a safe space for all families. And Sarah Turnbull was there to help along the way.

Turnbull, who has a daughter with spinal muscular atrophy, was part of the advisory committee that helped the Kiwanis club determine the wants and needs for the community’s all-inclusive playground, Wonder Spelen. Here she shares her personal story with Kiwanis magazine.

By Sarah Turnbull | Photos by Scott Morgan

My daughter Stella was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, the child form of ALS, when she was just an infant. After receiving Stella’s terrifying prognosis, our world was turned upside down. So many medical appointments, medications, equipment, IEP (individualized education program) meetings, needing an adapted van and entry into our house and living with lots of unknowns. There was such a learning curve and so many adaptations to be made in life. And you know what I craved more than anything? A sense of normalcy. I so badly wanted to do what I did with my older son on a beautiful afternoon when it was just the two of us. I wanted to load up the kids and head to the park to play. 

Sarah Turnbull speaks Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021 during the opening of the Wonder Spelen, an inclusive playground built by the Pella Kiwanis Club, in Pella, Iowa. Photo by Scott Morgan 2021

That image was far from my reality, however. My boys would play and Stella and I would sit on the sidelines. Instead of enjoying our time at the park together, the boys would play while Stella and I waited for them to expend their energy. And then we’d go home for nap time. 

I was torn as to what to do when one of the boys would ask me to push them on the swing while I needed to be tending to Stella. Sometimes I would tend to the boys and run back to Stella, not ever able to live in that moment with my kids. It was one more thing that was hard. I didn’t want one more hard thing right then. Why was going to a park even difficult? I wanted nothing more than to live in the moment with my kids, all three of them.  

I’m thankful for my boys, who have always taken the initiative to include their sister in their everyday activities. They always do their best to make sure Stella gets to experience life right alongside them. 

When something isn’t accessible, it frustrates them as well. They knew the importance of inclusion at a young age and wanted her in the mix right there with them. Now I see them growing into young men who will go the extra mile to help others like their sister when the need arises.  

I’m blown away by the generosity and coordination that has taken place in such a short time to make Wonder Spelen a reality. I appreciate that Kiwanis decided to implement an advisory committee that included parents with special-needs kids as well as occupational/physical therapists to consult with regarding structural design and selection of playground equipment. 

Often during planning, we’d mention a need for something, such as a certain design of bathroom, and the Kiwanis members would positively respond with, “I never thought of that! Let’s do it!” 

As a parent of a child with special needs, that isn’t always the response we receive when we indicate a need for our children, since that need often requires thinking outside the box and often costs more than the typical items the typical child uses at a playground. The project leaders demonstrated to us as parents that they echoed our belief that everyone should be able to enjoy the playground. Everyone is important in that equation.

This beautiful dream is an amazing reality, and I can’t thank Kiwanis enough for the devotion to this project. I truly feel it’s similar to the movie Field of Dreams, where “if you build it, they will come.” I didn’t feel for one moment that the Kiwanis members doubted that it would happen. They believed it would, and incredible people from the Pella community showed up to support it and made it happen. I’m so excited to know that Wonder Spelen is where many memories are about to be made for generations to come.

Travis, Stella and Sarah Turnbull

Learn more about the Kiwanis Club of Pella’s all-inclusive playground Wonder Spelen by visiting kiwanis.org/magazine.

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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