On a fishing trip last summer, Tammy Conforti asked her husband to pull over at a roadside stop in Minnesota so she could take a photo of a historical marker. And that’s when she saw it: a “really cool” swing set designed for a special needs child.
Because Conforti works with special needs kids at Whittier Elementary School in Kenosha, that little swing peaked her interest. So after returning home, she did some research and found there were not only companies that made swings and slides for kids with disabilities but also whole playgrounds designed for them. But not one of those playgrounds is in Kenosha.
“Kenosha has 46 parks that contain playground equipment, but special needs kids aren’t able to play on the equipment,” she said. “They have to sit on the sidelines and watch their brothers and sisters play. That’s incredibly sad.”
Visits to the few adaptive playgrounds in the area — including Racine’s Lockwood Park and Port Washington’s Possibility Playground — ignited Conforti’s campaign to build a similar play area in her hometown. Her friend Jaime Forsythe was the first to join the effort, which Conforti calls the Kenosha Dream Playground Project. Forsythe’s 4-year-old daughter, Amity, has spina bifida and is one of Conforti’s inspirations. Then, in August, the Kenosha Achievement Center came on board, forming a nonprofit partnership with the project.
Meanwhile, Conforti had been out spreading the word. She met with the park commissioner and the mayor, talked to parents, manned a “traveling” booth at HarborMarket, and attended every city council and park commission meeting. Armed with a short DVD, a binder of research and handmade posters covered with photos, Conforti has given presentations all over the area — to the Kiwanis Club, the Village of Pleasant Prairie, the school superintendent — “to anyone who will listen to me,” she said.
She visualizes Kenosha’s playground looking much like the one in Port Washington. That park is laid out on a rubberized surface, making it accessible for walkers and wheelchairs. In addition to adaptive swings and slides, kids of all abilities can enjoy the balance beam, sandbox, rain wheel, musical alligator, ramps, bridges and more. It was “the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Conforti said, recalling her first visit to the playground. “I fell in love; I didn’t want to leave.”
Funding such a project is no small feat, but Conforti is up for the challenge. “I started with absolutely no seed money,” she said. So she reallocated an envelope of money she’d been saving for a dream trip to Hawaii to the dream playground project. That money bought supplies and paid for fliers, “spirit” T-shirts and other startup necessities. Since then, the city has earmarked $10,000 for engineering and design, plus another $250,000 for the project contingent on Conforti’s group raising a matching amount.
In addition, a “Pasta for a Playground” fundraiser in December served 400 people and raised $10,000, plus a $10,000 donation from the Moose Lodge, where it was held. And that’s just the beginning. Conforti’s 2013 calendar already is filling up with promotional activities and fundraisers, including the Kenosha Unified Academic Showcase April 27, Kenosha Day at Possibility Playground April 28, a golf outing sponsored by local firefighters, a bowl-a-thon, a porky and pancake breakfast, and another pasta dinner. She’s also working on a PowerPoint to enhance her presentations.
“There’s a huge time commitment to this. It’s like I have two full-time jobs,” Conforti said. “I haven’t seen my husband in six months, but I love my kids.”
“My kids,” or “yum-yums” as she lovingly calls them, are the 3- to 5-year-old students in the early education program at Whittier, where she is an educational support professional.
“My kids don’t give up, so I don’t give up. I’m doing this for them,” she said. “They deserve this. They need this. They have to try so hard ... they shouldn’t have to work to play. So at all costs, this playground is going to get done.”
For more information, go to www.thekac.com and click on Dream Playground Project or email firstname.lastname@example.org.