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Everyone's playground

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A city of 66,000 built the Bielenberg Sports Center. On behalf of all those neighbors, one person raised the $830,000 needed for the adjacent all-inclusive playground, Madison's Place.

With just a little overdue fanfare, the playground opened last Saturday. Dave Millington of Woodbury emceed a ribbon-cutting ceremony, honoring his wife, Dana, who achieved her dream: a playground for all ages and abilities, where any family can play together. More than 600 people celebrated last weekend.

"And it doesn't even feel crowded," state Rep. Kelly Fenton said.

Donors, family and other supporters gathered for the ceremony, before and after which families played on the enormous purple, orange and lime-colored structure situated on a spongy outdoor surface.

"It will become an all-around family park," said donor Susan Duval, pointing out the modern color combination, mature shade trees, safe environment for children with handicaps, playground elements that might require a parent to get involved instead of being a bystander. A trail connects Madison's Place to Miracle Field, where youth adapted baseball teams play with adult helpers. Duval predicted the regional playground will be a popular feature in her hometown.

"It's a destination," Jim Duval said.

The first round of playground users all agreed: they've been looking forward to the opening of Madison's Place for some time now, and the results have exceeded expectations.

Dana's parents, Dick and Marvel Thorne of Lakeville, saw the playground for the first time last weekend.

"I got teary eyed when I saw the kids in wheelchairs playing," Marvel said. "Our granddaughter (Madison) was in a wheelchair, and couldn't do this. And all the kids playing together—it's just beautiful."

The Madison Claire Foundation, which was founded in 2006 and eventually became the sponsor of the playground, honors the Millingtons' daughter, who was diagnosed as an infant with spinal muscular atrophy. SMA caused curvature of the spine and led to Madison's death in 2004 at age 2.

Madison couldn't play with her sisters at parks, so when Dana decided her mission was to build an all-inclusive playground, she took every step to create and revise plans for everyone and anyone to be included at Madison's Place. While all-inclusive playgrounds are a growing trend, Madison's Place is the first playground of its kind in the east metro.

For about six years, Dana fundraised.

"She's the one with a dream. ... She's a living testament to faith and never giving up," Dave said.

Dana got the city involved, finding a site that needed its 18-year-old playground equipment replaced, and receiving the city's help with site preparation such as grading and trail connections, as well as the selection of a site next to the splash pad and complete with restrooms. City officials became personally passionate about the project.

Special Olympics Minnesota and Habitat For Humanity partnered with the Madison Claire Foundation, and Elion Partners (developer of CityPlace), SuperAmerica, and Summit Orthopedics gave major donations.

"It was a no-brainer for us," Steve Morris of SA said.

Summit Orthopedics was "proud to close the funding gap" with an $80,000 gift, CEO Adam Berry said. Madison's Place is a natural extension of the business' mission.

"It's the whole atmosphere," Berry said of Summit Orthopedics' enthusiasm about its expansion into Bielenberg Sports Center. "We wanted to make an investment commensurate with what you're going to receive. When you give, you receive, actually."

"We are so honored" to be allowed to help fund Madison's Place, said Matt Alexander, representing Elion Partners and Kraus-Anderson.

Dave Millington called Madison's Place a world-class park and playground, thanks to the help of Landscape Structures of Delano, Minn., and Flagship Recreation of St. Louis Park.

The project even taught Bryan Sykora of Landscape Structures about inclusive play.

"They worked with doctors and therapists and children to learn what is the best thing," Sykora said.

Through seven years and 19 revisions, the goal was always to meet the needs of all children in the same place and in a variety of ways, he said.

It's a place for playing, learning, outdoor therapy, and relationship making, Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens said. A goal of the city, she added, is to remain a welcoming and inclusive community.

"Inclusion is very important to me," said Kayte Barton, a Woodbury resident and Special Olympics spokeswoman. "Playgrounds help (children with special needs) be perceived as person first, instead of different."

Kurt McMahon of Woodbury, who works in construction and was previously familiar with Landscape Structures' creative playgrounds, was in awe.

"This place is amazing," McMahon said. "It's even fun for adults."

"We've been waiting for a place like this," said Jon Zimplemann of Hastings.

It's hard to be a parent of a son with special needs. The playground is just as much for parents as it is for children. Zimplemann hopes his family's visits to the all-inclusive playground might put them in position to meet other parents who face similar challenges.

Manny Hudnall, 6, said he has issues navigating other playgrounds in his wheelchair—"that's hard, it's the wood chips," he said—but he explored all of Madison's Place.

"He can do it on his own without assistance," said Hudnall's father, Harrison. "We can pretty much go everywhere, except the slides."

"If there's a buckle," Hudnall said, eyeing the zipline. "then I would be good."

And he can play on the playground with his brother and sister, too.

"It's a good thing they made it," Hudnall said.

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