A Lost Creek Dream: Inclusive Playground brings joy to ALL in Columbus

A Lost Creek Dream: Inclusive Playground brings joy to ALL in Columbus

By Tyler Dahlgren

There were magic moments in Columbus last Tuesday night, as a dream more than two and a half years in the making became a heart-warming reality.

The grand opening for the Columbus Inclusive Playground drew a large crowd to Lost Creek Elementary School, where students, ALL students, laughed and played under a warm October sun.

“It was incredible,” said Megan Johnson, special education teacher at Lost Creek, located just south of Columbus High School. “All along the way, we were asking ourselves ‘Is it going to match the vision we had? Are kids and their families, the ones who will be most impacted by the playground, going to be happy with it?’”

Johnson, along with high-needs teacher Michelle Figge, approached principal Jeff Bartels and Executive Director of Special Education Jason Harris with their idea in February of 2015. The two pitched a playground fit for all, with special equipment designed to accommodate those with disabilities. Fully wheelchair accessible and walker-friendly. The closest playgrounds of its kind resided in Omaha and Kearney.

“I loved the dream,” Harris said, though it turned out the school didn’t qualify for the $100K grant Figge and Johnson had initially planned to apply for. “We got our grant writer involved, and what we were finding was that we didn’t qualify for a lot of those grants due to one reason or another. That’s when Megan and the team started talking about fundraising.”

The fundraising drive started with Johnson, Figge and a few administrators, whose slates were already stacked with other building renovations going on within the district. Knowing they couldn’t pull it off alone, the two teachers formed a committee.

“A couple of parents and the program director for ‘The Arc of Platte County’, which serves individuals with disabilities, wanted to be a part of it,” Johnson said.

The committee started talking to anybody that would listen. The Rotary Club, Noon Lions Club, Sertoma Club and the Eagles Club. All the clubs. Columbus Public Schools funded about half of the playground. A caring community took care of the rest.

“It really became a community event as it got going,” Harris said. “Megan, Michelle and the team had the fire to make it happen.”

Johnson hoped the community would feel her committee’s passion, hear their dream and see their vision. Hopefully, she said, they’d buy in.

“And they did,” Johnson said. “It was incredible.”

Crouch Recreation designed the state-of-the-art facility, with wheelchair-accessible swings and a smooth, gravel-free surface. Dostal Construction handled the installation, and, when all was said and done, a dream turned into a reality.

“The playground exceeded my expectations,” Harris said. “Seeing all students playing together, being able to swing for the first time, with other students swinging right beside them, that really warmed my heart. That’s what this vision was all about.”

On a picture-perfect Tuesday night, disabilities faded into the background, as laughter, joy and a young student body’s togetherness took its rightful place, front and center.

“Lost Creek, because of the specialized programs we have here, is a special community of students,” Johnson said. “Our students learn a sense of empathy and compassion for kids with special needs, and they feel comfortable with kids that are different from them. To see them playing together was incredible.”

For the first time, parents had the chance to push their son or daughter in a swing set, a simple act that can be taken for granted. For Johnson, seeing those interactions made the last two tireless years worthwhile, and so much more.

“Getting them to the grand opening and seeing their faces, some of them had tears in their eyes as their kids played, it was just awesome,” she said. “This is going to make a difference in the lives of a lot of people in our community.”

The playground was built with the kids in mind, no doubt about it, but they won’t be the playground’s only beneficiaries. There is an entire population of parents and grandparents confined to wheelchairs or walkers that now can join in on their kid’s fun instead of being stuck on a bench, Johnson explains.

“It truly is a community project, and I think that’s why the community bought into it so well,” she said.

Both Johnson and Harris stress the importance community will play in how the playground is utilized moving forward. “Playground Palooza”, a fundraiser held by the committee in each of the last two springs, drew over 700 people. Some were connected to the district’s schools. Some were not.

“What makes this story so amazing is that it started with a dream,” Harris said. “How two special education teachers could help their students get a playground. Over time, this really became a community dream.”

Johnson has been touched by all of the support. There’s so many people to thank she doesn’t know where to begin.

The playground started out as a dream.

For the kids it was built for, swinging high towards the sky or gliding down a slippery slide was always just that. 

Johnson recalls a kindergartner walking up to her at lunch one day during the fundraising campaign.

The kindergartner handed over a bag of change.

Nickels and dimes and quarters and pennies.

“This is for the playground,” the five-year-old girl proudly said.

A dream became a reality.