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'Madison's Place' vows to put smiles on many faces

Madison Claire1 / 2
The Madison's Place playground will have a specialized surface for wheelchair bound children and their families, as well as other handicap accessible features.2 / 2

Woodbury resident Dana Millington wants her children to remember their sister, Madison Claire, in a happy sense. To be able to smile when they hear her name.

Though still grieving after losing their baby girl at age of 2 from complications of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), the Millingtons knew they wanted to do something to help children with disabilities.

They wanted to bring "Madison's Place" to the east metro.

The all-inclusive playground will be designed with a special, wheelchair-accessible, rubber surface for children with physical hardships who cannot otherwise enjoy summers at the park. Plans call for the playground to be built at Bielenberg Sports Center.

Fundraising for the project began in 2008 and since then, the Madison Claire Foundation raised $60,000. A September gala is aiming to collect another $100,000.

"I hope it'll be full of smiles and busy," Millington said of the playground.

Millington, the foundation board's president, knows first-hand what it's like to raise a child with a life-threatening disease.

Her daughter, Madison Claire, was born in 2002 and was diagnosed with SMA at six months. The family knew she was in serious condition and her illness took a toll on her siblings as well, who were 2 and 4 years old at the time.

"It was devastating. It was right before Christmas. It's devastating to hear your child has something and there is nothing you can do to help them fix it," Millington said, her voice breaking up. "It was basically a death sentence for her...

"It was a whole new living for our entire family for two years."

When the four of them would go to the park together, Millington had to choose whether she should push Madison around and help her navigate the playground or play with her other children. It wasn't possible for her to be with all three of her young children at the same time.

"It's not a choice a parent should have to make," she said.

So the idea behind Madison's Place is to make it a park where the entire family -- whether children and their guardians are physically disabled or not -- can spend time together.

"After she had passed I had seen a project like this that was done in California," Millington said

She said she immediately wanted to bring it to the Twin Cities and especially the east metro.

The only other all-inclusive, completely handicap accessible playground like Madison's Place is located in Red Wing, Minn.

"It's a big focus on the kids but there is a big focus on the veterans coming back that are injured and disabled," Millington said.

The project will replace an existing playground at the Bielenberg Sports Center when fundraising is complete.

Madison's Place is estimated to cost $600,000. The foundation's goal is to raise $100,000 and get the rest from corporate sponsorships.

"We've been really busy making partnerships with community businesses and we have ongoing talks with larger foundations to come in and help," Millington said. "We're starting to make some progress."

The city of Woodbury has committed the land for the project and the Rehabilitation Services team at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital has committed their expertise in designing the playground.

Additionally, the Air National Guard Civil Engineer squadron will provide some manpower to install the playground over a six-week period in the summer of 2012, Millington said.

Just when the playground will be up and running depends on availability of the funds.

Woodbury Parks and Recreation Director Bob Klatt said the existing playground is older than 15 years, and having Madison's Place in the sports complex near the Jeff Hanson Miracle Field will draw even more people to the area.

"This is just an ideal fit and the timing seems to coincide with when we'll have other construction going on there," he added, referring to the proposed expansion of Bielenberg Sports Center.

Madison Claire Foundation Director of Development Paula Molnau said there is a misconception out there that most playgrounds are handicap accessible. Madison's Place will be a unique destination for children with disabilities along with their siblings, friends and families.

"The biggest hurdle is the surface has to be such that wheelchairs are able to access it," she said, adding, "With Madison's Place, everybody can play or be a part of the playground. It doesn't matter what your age is ... everybody deserves an even playing field."

The plan is to have rubberized flooring, a ramped play structure to allow each child to access the highest play deck, accessible swings, metal slides for those with cochlear implants and hearing aids and enclosed ball structures for autistic children who need to play away from other noise.

Millington envisions the playground as a happy place where kids can escape to, a place they can be themselves and play with their peers, a destination they look at and say, "I want to go there."

Madison's Place is a project that has made it easier for Madison's now 4-year-old sister Grace and 6-year-old brother Harrison to talk about her without being sad.

"You never move on, it's just a different way of living and seeing the world," Millington said. "You see the world differently."

The fundraising gala will be held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24 at the Van Dusen Mansion in Minneapolis. There will be a cocktail reception, silent auction and a live jazz band. Tickets are $75 per person or $150 per couple. To RSVP, visit

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.