The Bradenton community celebrated a groundbreaking on Oct. 11 at Lewis Park to recognize the construction of the city’s first ever all-inclusive playground experience, which will provide recreational and active-living opportunities for every child in the region.
The $415,000 ADA-compliant playground was made possible through a partnership between the City of Bradenton and the Rotary’s Suncoast Playground Projects, Inc., which obtained community donations from organizations, businesses and individuals.
Among those who donated, Neal Communities, as a company, contributed $75,000 to the project, and Neal Communities President Michael Storey contributed $15,000 of his own personal funds.
“We’ve all heard the familiar sounds of a playground where kids are laughing and shrieking and playing. To be denied as a kid is not fair,” Storey said. “We are truly happy that — as both an organization and through my own family — we could help make this playground a reality for everyone.”
Once completed, the playground will be the only purpose-built destination of its kind in Manatee County, serving children of all ages and abilities in the immediate region. The playground will include separate play areas for ages 2 to 5 and for ages 5 to 12. The playground also will include a section of swings – including one that can accommodate a child in a wheelchair.
Lewis Park is considered a neighborhood park with shade trees, walking trails, two gazebos and grills. It is situated on First Avenue West between 30th and 31st Streets.
The project was spearheaded by Rotary Clubs of Manatee County, a network of several Rotary clubs in the area. Rotary’s Suncoast Playground Projects, Inc. was formed and launched a capital campaign in 2016, after a grandmother approached the club to help her grandson, Easton, who is confined to a wheelchair. She explained to the Rotarians that there was no playground in Manatee County for Easton to enjoy, said Tom Norton, who heads the Rotary’s Suncoast Playground Projects, Inc.
“Our Rotary Club was very interested in helping, so we put together a plan,” Norton said.
Neal Communities was one of the first major contributors to the campaign, he said. “It was Neal Communities who kickstarted our capital campaign with their donation. They gave us a great shot in the arm to get us going.”
Afterward, more donations started to come from businesses and individuals. Norton said that once the fundraising was completed, they were thrilled to learn that the City of Bradenton was interested in putting a playground at Lewis Park.
“The entire Rotary’s Suncoast Playground Projects, Inc. team is profoundly grateful for every contribution, large and small, that we have received,” Norton said in a release from the City of Bradenton. “Our mission of providing an inclusive playground that every child can enjoy is becoming a reality. Thank you to everyone who has helped us get closer to that goal.”
For Easton, the playground has been a long time coming, said his mother, Jennifer Crofoot. Born with spina bifida, Easton will never walk. Although that has not slowed the charismatic, naturally happy boy, she said. “He can do anything that his friends can do; he just has to do it differently,” Crofoot said. “In fact, when he was a little kid, some of his friends would go home and tell their parents that they wanted a wheelchair, too.”
Crofoot said it was her mother who first approached the Rotary Club for help with a playground for Easton. At the time, she and her mother didn’t realize they would be starting a seven-year campaign. “The City of Bradenton has been incredible. We’re glad everything is happening now, as it should,” Crofoot said. She is hoping to host Easton’s 12th birthday at the playground in January.
“I’m thrilled this is finally coming to fruition,” Crofoot said. “Most people would have walked away years ago from this. But the Rotary stuck through, and Pat (Neal) and Mike (Storey) both got the ball rolling with their big donation. We’re really grateful for that.”
The City of Bradenton was proud to come on board and offer a place for the specialized playground, said Mayor Gene Brown.
“Working with the Rotary Club on this ADA compliant playground is something the City of Bradenton and all of its residents can be proud of,” Brown said. “We want no child to be excluded from enjoying our neighborhood parks. We are so grateful for the efforts of the Rotary Club, and we can’t wait to see our children enjoying this beautiful park.”
Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey echoed the Mayor’s thoughts. She represents the city’s Ward Two, the district where Lewis Park is located. “The City of Bradenton is working to upgrade all of its neighborhood parks to be ADA compliant,” she said. “We are grateful to the Rotary Club for its donation of almost a half a million dollars to support the City in this effort to convert Lewis Park to have a playground that all kids can enjoy. Having a community partner to do this means that we can get to other parks sooner. We are thrilled to be able to offer community parks that will serve all children who want to use it.”
For more information about the City of Bradenton’s parks system, visit CityofBradenton.com/ParksRec.