Accessible Playground at Zorinsky Would Be First of Its Kind in West Omaha
When Lauren Citro tries to go to a playground with her family, she can run into a problem.
“When I see all that sand, I'm like, ‘I'm going to have to carry him across,’” she says. “It's not going to go well.”
Citro is referring to her son Brody. Brody has spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord doesn’t form properly. He uses mobility aids like sticks and a walker to get around.
In 2018, Citro and friends Meaghan Walls and Allison Corson-Brown founded Imagine Inclusion, a local nonprofit with a mission to increase awareness and resources relating to accessibility. Their first project? Build an accessible playground in West Omaha. At Zorinsky Lake, to be exact. One of the city’s busiest parks, located at 156th and F Streets.
“There's just a lot of barriers,” Walls says. “Barriers to play, barriers to freely interact.”
Walls is the CEO of local company Assistology, which provides assistive technology services to clients. She met Citro through their children’s daycare.
“Our children are friends. And so if they are playing together on a structure with no ramps, my daughter can jump off and go wherever, and [Citro’s] son gets left behind without someone coming over to assist him. Or a caregiver who has their own challenges can't get to their child or go interact and play with their child because of the sand or inaccessibility,” Walls says. “It's a lot of isolation for families.”
Currently Omaha only has three playgrounds that are considered 100 percent accessible, and all are east of 84th Street: one at Seymour Smith Park, one at Benson Park and one at Pipal Park. Zorinsky would be the fourth and the farthest west.
Plans for the 9500-square-foot Zorinsky playground include multiple ramps leading to elevated features, which are painted in high-contrast colors to indicate hazards. There are ground-level interactive panels with music components. There’s an “inclusive whirl,” an in-ground merry-go-round with a bench and multiple railing options. There’s a roller slide, which prevents the sort of static electricity that can damage insulin pumps and pacemakers. And there’s not a grain of sand in sight, only wheel-friendly flat rubber surfacing.
A playground already stands in the proposed spot at Zorinsky, but it was built more than two decades ago — too old to retrofit for accessibility, says Omaha Parks and Recreation planner John Williams.
“The posts are square. And so, those aren't even manufactured anymore by that particular vendor,” Williams says. “So it is certainly one that needs to be upgraded. And having an all-accessible type of playground in that part of town is certainly reasonable and something that I think would get a lot of use.”
Local playground equipment supplier Crouch Recreation created the playground’s design plans. The company also assisted with the accessible facilities at Seymour Smith and Benson.
“Every time you build one, you want to outdo the last one you did,” says Eric Crouch — yes, that Eric Crouch — who owns Crouch Recreation with his wife Nicole.
“It's a very beautiful, perfect location for it, and we're just very excited to be involved,” he says. It's a big dollar amount. I mean, these things aren't cheap.”
The playground is in the fundraising stage. Imagine Inclusion has raised about $100,000 of the $850,000 goal. Construction will start once the nonprofit raises about $700,000 — hopefully by next summer, Walls says.
The project has the backing of Omaha Parks and Recreation and members of the local disability community.
Nancy Berg runs the Instagram account @accessible402, which highlights accessible and adaptive activities for wheelchair users in Omaha.
“I think everybody always wants to be included, and so a lot of times I've accepted the fact that places aren't going to always be accessible,” she says.
Berg uses a wheelchair, but her daughter Makenzie does not.
“As soon as I found accessible parks in Omaha, and places that I could bring my daughter... I felt more like a mom that could interact with my child, instead of just sitting there like watching her play,” Berg says. “I could actually go and go to the slide with her, push her on the swing, really interact and play with her and have good quality play time with her.”
When Makenzie was younger, the two often ended up at the Seymour Smith playground. The family lives in Millard, which makes the drive to Seymour Smith at 68th and Harrison Streets inconvenient and time-consuming.
Neena Nizar, who lives in Elkhorn, knows what that’s like. She and her two sons have a rare skeletal disorder called Jansen’s Disease. Walking can be difficult, and they regularly use wheelchairs on days out.
“There is nowhere to really go if you have wheelchairs or if you are having a disability where… you struggle to move through the sandy areas, or you struggle with just some of the equipment,” Nizar says. “They can be dangerous for our kiddos.”
Nizar is also the founder of the Jansen’s Foundation, which works to raise awareness of Jansen’s Disease and raise research funds. The foundation organizes a yearly walkathon at Zorinsky.
Nizar says conversations about disability sometimes overlook a crucial component: community.
“As mother and as a caregiver, or even a caretaker, we want to have inclusive play structures, because, you know, it gives children, our kids, the opportunity to get to know children different from themselves. And it also gives others the opportunity to get to know our children, so they kind of understand similarities and differences. It also gives us the ability, just like other moms, to go to the park and sit back and relax and not worry about whether they're going to be falling off some equipment because the equipment was not accessible — whether they're going to get hurt, whether the swing set is just too dangerous for them to use,” she says. “It's a higher sense of belonging that comes with the playground.”
Imagine Inclusion will also host Illuminate Inclusion a socially distant fundraiser on December 11 and 12 at Zorinsky Lake. For more information and to donate to the project, visit imagineinclusion.org.