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Dana Millington's $830,000 labor of love opens

Dana Millington of Woodbury raised money and got an accessible playground named Madison's Place built, following the death of her daughter Madison Claire in 2004. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

Dana Millington has done it.

She has emerged from a 12-year odyssey of despair to reach her goal: building an $830,000 playground for children with disabilities.

She named it after her daughter, Madison, who died when she was 2 years old. It will be a place where Madison might have played with other children, instead of feeling excluded.

Madison's Place in Woodbury opened June 4.

"Finally, on June 4, everyone will understand what we were trying to accomplish," said Millington, looking over the brightly colored equipment.

"I'm a quiet person. I hate the limelight," she said.

"But I am very determined."

The saga of the ordinary Woodbury mom who became a children's superhero began in 2002.

Millington was an insurance office worker and mother of two. Then she gave birth to her third child, Madison.

Immediately it was clear that something was wrong. Madison's spine was deteriorating. That made her unable to move her arms and legs and, eventually, her head.

Her mom would take the family to playgrounds. But Madison's wheelchair couldn't roll in the sand. She couldn't climb the ladders or play on the swings. "It was heartbreaking," Millington said.

The girl could only sit on the sidelines and watch.

And her mother could only watch as her daughter wasted away.

Madison's death in 2004 was the most soul-crushing moment of her mom's life.

"I thanked God for my other kids. That's what kept me from going insane," she said.

The family was forced to adjust.

"One of the most scary things was that I had quit my job," said Millington. "I had been taking care of Madison. It filled every minute of every day."

She eventually found a way to fill her time — by starting the Madison Claire Foundation, dedicated to helping children who have disabilities.

"It filled a void for me. It was like therapy," said Millington.

'This is it'

One day Millington was watching "Today." It featured a segment on Shane's Inspiration, a California foundation that builds handicapped-accessible playgrounds.

It was founded after the death of a 2-week-old boy named Shane.

His cause of death? Spinal atrophy — exactly what had killed Madison.

The idea seized Millington. "I told my husband: 'This is it!' " she said.

The first cost estimate for a similar playground was $350,000. Millington jumped into the world of fundraising — and fell flat.

Potential donors had no idea what she was talking about. Weren't there playgrounds in every school?

She said no handicapped-accessible playgrounds had been built in the state, so she had no examples to show them. "I didn't realize all the education we would have to do," she said.

Millington tried garage sales — too much work for not enough money. "Then a friend told me I had to throw some parties," she said.

The "American Idol" Finale Party was born. From 2009 to 2011, the parties — at the peak of the TV show's popularity — raised as much as $15,000 a year.

The experimentation continued. She threw a Roaring '20s party. Then a '70s Night in a bar.

Then a golf tournament. And a wine-tasting fundraiser. "We have done everything," Millington said.

But a thousand dollars here, $10,000 there ... it wasn't enough.

And the cost was ballooning.

One of the problems was Millington's vow: No disability would ever prevent any child from playing at Madison's Place.

She tried to stay within her budget, but as soon as she heard of any child who wouldn't be able to play there, she cracked. A kid with autism? Blindness? She piled on new equipment, and the project cost rose.

The money struggle

By 2011, one source of money was running dry: nonprofit foundations. In the recession, their focus shifted to economic stimulus and away from help for disabled children.

Millington had raised $60,000 in three years. Discouraged, she almost suspended fundraising, holding only two events in two years.

The fundraising muddled along. In 2014, she had raised about $207,000, barely one-quarter of the goal.

Millington eventually gave up on seeking donations from corporations.

The new plan? Talking.

She began to rely entirely on personal connections and word-of-mouth recommendations.

Over the past two years — finally — the fundraising has surged.

On May 19, she showed off Madison's Place, next to the Bielenberg Sports Center. She looked at the playground like a marathoner gazing at the finish line.

"Now you know why it took so long," Millington said to a reporter.

The area is roughly the size of an Olympic swimming pool and looks like a Dr. Seuss tangle of cartoonishly bright play stations.

The base is 4-inch-thick rubber padding, which cost $190,000 by itself.

Children will be able to play on:

• A swing for wheelchairs.

• A 50-foot "zipline" ride for kids in bucket seats.

• A shady tunnel with star-shaped inserts that light up on sunny days.

• A bucket-seat merry-go-round.

• Special slides that don't generate static electricity, which could interfere with cochlear implants or hearing aids.

• The "Learning Wall" with Braille letters.

Some of the equipment, said Millington, is for therapy in disguise.

On the Roller Slide, kids will lie on their backs and pull themselves over rollers — good for adding muscle to tiny arms. "Kids come and play and don't even know they are doing rehab," Millington said.

The colors were selected by a vote of children at the University of Minnesota children's hospital: plum, lime green and orange.

She said the prolonged struggle has transformed her: "I am stronger now," she said.

And even after 12 years, the inspiration for the project still burns inside of her.

"It was important for me to make this have meaning. Madison struggled for years," she said. "But it was not just to struggle."

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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