Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Jen Troska and her family moved from a small town to Moorhead for its excellent services for her youngest child, who is autistic. Now she is helping bring one missing amenity to her adopted community – an inclusive playground where all children can safely and joyfully play together.
“We love the Moorhead school system. It’s been fantastic for Jonathan,” the mother of four exclaims. “But there’s no park or playground where kids like him can just play and be carefree.” She is helping to change that.
Jen is working with the Moorhead Parks and Recreation Department to bring attention to one of its dreams. Described as a destination where people of all ages and abilities can play together, the proposed park – to be located near the Miracle Field at Southside Regional Park – will include the kind of surfaces and structures that can delight children with mobility issues and other challenges: Swings for wheelchair and non-wheelchair users, interactive sensory objects, horizontal conveyor-belt slides and a zip line. All equipment will be placed on a smooth, rubberized surface, something that’s critical for those who use wheelchairs and walking aids.
Those are familiar additions already in place in Fargo and West Fargo, though not in Moorhead. Jen, though, wants to see the plan carried a step farther for youngsters like Jonathan, 10, who is autistic and mostly nonverbal – she wants to see a big board covered with pictures to help children like him communicate their wishes. The images are part of a communication system for nonverbal children and adults called PECS – Picture Exchange Communication System. “It would help him and others express what they’d like to do: ‘I want to swing. I want to slide now,’” his mother explains.
And she has a special hope for her son and other children with similar challenges. She wants the playground to be surrounded by a fence.
“He’s a runner,” she explains. “Jonathan is perfectly physically able to run and jump, but he doesn’t understand when he’s in a park that he has to stay there. He just takes off – not to be naughty, but because he doesn’t understand. And he’s fast!” That means he’s not safe on wide-open ground.
She recounts how on a visit to West Fargo’s new inclusive playground, he suddenly took off: “It took us (her and one of her children) four blocks to catch up with him. “Some parents can bring their kids to the park, then sit and watch them. That doesn’t work for us, or for anyone with a child like Jon.”
According to the Parks Department’s estimate, the inclusive playground she and other parents are hoping to see will come in at about $1 million, with specific play equipment chosen by the children who will use it. The cost includes $375,000 for that equipment, $225,000 for a rubberized surface, and $400,000 for accessible parking, sidewalks, benches and landscaping. Donors will be recognized on a picket fence – yes, the enclosure that Jen hopes to see, but a cheerful, positive variation on chain links.
Construction of the park depends on community donations. According to the Parks Department, about $195,000 has been raised so far. It’s at the top of the list among the Community Fund’s dreams and was included in the FM Area Foundation’s Caring Catalog. The Moorhead Kiwanis Club kicked off the campaign, which began in 2020, with a five-year pledge of $10,000. According to Jen, that total needs to reach $300,000 before the department’s grant writers can expect to secure the support of foundations and other major donors.
The first event of next week’s Greater Moorhead Days will highlight the playground’s possibilities. Families can count on having a good time at Gooseberry Park while learning more about the project and the children whom it will serve. The All-Inclusive Family Picnic is scheduled from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8. Everyone is welcome. There will be free hot dogs, chips and pop served by the Moorhead Lions Club, along with two bounce houses, a professional face painter, rock painting and a DJ.
Thursday’s picnic, Jen says, is also a chance for those raising neurotypical children to observe and interact with boys and girls who have special needs. “If you don’t have kids like mine, you’re probably not familiar with their challenges,” she says. “Thanks to mainstreaming in the ‘least restrictive environment’ at school, other children are fine with it. They come up and talk and play. But it’s not like their parents see them every day. Here’s a chance to observe and learn.”
It’s also a chance for parents like her to get together. Jen ran a group she called SPINS – Special Parents in Need of Support – until the Covid pandemic complicated meeting. She is also part of the F-M Area Special Needs Foundation.
Like many of those she has met, she longs for a normal childhood for her youngest son. “Play is such an integral part of growing up. Now that he’s 10, this will probably come too late for him, but I hope it will help other, younger kids. He never got that chance.”