Expansion of universal-access playground gets San Clemente’s support

By FRED SWEGLES, Orange County Register

Courtney’s SandCastle, a universal-access playground in San Clemente that gives children with disabilities a chance to play beside children without disabilities, is a step closer to adding a sensory garden.

The City Council approved a conceptual plan Tuesday night to add interactive features designed to stimulate the senses – attractions such as a water sphere, musical play feature and tidal pool. The goal is to enhance the experience for developmentally challenged kids.

The council also voted to offer up to $110,000 in city funds on a dollar- for-dollar match as the Courtney’s SandCastle Charitable Foundation raises a final $110,000 needed to build Phase 2 of the playground, which opened Feb. 25 at Vista Hermosa Sports Park.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Mina Santoro, leader of the foundation and a volunteer who has worked more than 10 years to make the universal playground a reality in San Clemente. Santoro said the foundation hopes to raise the needed funds within a year or even six months. The foundation’s final $110,000 fund drive comes on top of $230,000 already raised privately toward the sensory garden.

Playground namesake Courtney Smith, 15, who has spinal muscular atrophy, was 4 when her family and friends set out to find a site and funding sources for a playground she could enjoy in her wheelchair with her friend Spencer Shelton-Jenks. She told the City Council that the sensory garden will benefit many more children.

The new features, estimated to cost $450,000, would go alongside existing Courtney’s SandCastle play equipment, including a climbable, ramp-accessible castle, a sailing ship, high-backed swings, musical sound boards, a sand scooper, and a sand and water table. The original playground cost $670,000, and the city added a specially designed restroom for $182,000.

A parade of speakers Tuesday appealed for city support of Phase 2. Nancy Brady, a San Clemente mom, told the council that her son Nick has grown to 6-foot-2 and is a freshman in high school, so Phase 1 of the playground isn’t for him. But because he has autism, “we are actively interested in Phase 2,” Brady said.

“Academically, he is doing great,” she said. “He’s taking algebra, English and conceptual physics. But his biggest complaint is how hard it is for him to organize his body. Since he does not have a lot of verbal language, he uses an iPad to communicate by arduously typing one letter at a time.”

His doctor has prescribed integrating sensory activity into his schedule to help him physically, and Nick already benefits from visiting fountains at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, his mother said.

“We make a day of it,” Brady said. “I spend my money at Fashion Island while he enjoys the fountains. I’d

like to do that in our own back yard if I could. Nick can sit quietly for a really long time and watch the water flow in and out, and for someone with a movement disorder, sitting, in itself, is a huge feat. The calmness that Nick experiences with running water is worth its weight in gold as a tool for organizing his body. And Nick needs these tools in order to participate in other aspects of his life.

“It would be such a blessing,” Brady added, “to have a water experience for Nick and kids with autism in our hometown – one that we could access on a daily basis if we needed to.”

Pam Patterson said adults with autism and other challenges also can benefit from the sensory garden. A letter read to the council described Alex, a 7-year-old with a sensory processing challenge.

Shauna Bogert said it is an honor to live in a city in the forefront of helping to integrate children with disabilities into the bigger community.

Sharon Heider, city director of beaches, parks and recreation, said that once funding is complete, it could take up to a year to solicit bids and build the sensory garden.

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