The vision for the new inclusive Inspiration Playground for kids of all abilities at the Bellevue Downtown Park first began in Nepal 20 years ago.
In 1997, Bellevue resident and downtown Bellevue Rotarian Robert Rose read an article in the Seattle Times about a nonprofit organization that performed various social services in the landlocked Asian country. Before he knew it, Rose found himself walking through Nepalese schools and youth centers surrounded by youth with and without disabilities.
“(The article) was very compelling and I just had this feeling about volunteering and I thought maybe I should call and volunteer,” Rose said. “Really that one phone call just started a whole cascade of events.”
It was his work there that first opened Rose’s eyes to issues facing young people with disabilities as he had previously never met anyone with a disability (to his knowledge).
“In Nepal there is no social service net, so (kids with disabilities) are just kind of a throw away segment of the population,” he said. “They are marginalized on a social level, marginalized on a religious level, marginalized on an economic level — they’re a burden on the family.”
Moreover, Rose noticed a shift in perception as children without disabilities initiated play with their peers with disabilities. “You’ll see a perceptual shift where someone will go from pity to just playing with another kid — they’re just another kid. I knew I wanted to try to incorporate something like that into my own community.”
Back home in the states, he started the Rose International Fund for Children and began helping more Nepalese children with disabilities with his own nonprofit while also making strides for other charitable causes through the Bellevue Rotary Club, of which he had been a member of since the late 1980s.
Rose said he took great pride in the contributions he and the Rotary were making in the community, but around 2010 he started to feel like the Rotary needed to find a large signature project to put their mark on.
“I was riding my bike on the Sammamish River Trail out toward Woodinville, and when I got out to Woodinville there is this park on the waterfront there with a big rotary wheel in the ground,” Rose said. “I thought, this is a really nice park they put here, I wonder how they did that.”
Rose approached the City of Bellevue’s Parks and Recreation Department about the Rotary possibly building an inclusive playground for children with and without disabilities. The city offered a suggestion: “They said there was a playground (in the Downtown Bellevue Park) that was never meant to be permanent. It was just a placeholder for something else.”
Over the next several years, Rose and his project co-chair, Pat Naselow, lobbied the Rotary board of advisers, the Bellevue City Council, and the general membership of their Rotary chapter. Together, the group raised $3.8 million of its $5.5 million goal, accepted a bid on design and construction from a builder that had experience with accessibility, and when the dust settled the 1.5-acre Inspiration Playground bore a giant rotary wheel at its entrance just like the one Rose had seen at the Woodinville park years earlier.
During an interview at the park on a particularly warm day, Rose talks about the park’s many accessible features, swelling with pride as he watches a family pass by. One of the family’s three children is in a wheelchair.
Turning back to the interview, Rose points out different structures in the park: There’s a “cozy cocoon,” which is a bulbous spinning chair that dampens outside noise meant for children with autism. There’s a two-person swing outfitted with one regular swing and one baby swing so that a parent can swing face-to-face with their child. There is the water table with a twisting water labyrinth that is the perfect height to pull a wheelchair up to (but not for standing on). There is a tactile frog statue with stones and shapes of different sizes and textures, perfect for children with sensory processing disorders. And the list goes on and on — ramps, a wheelchair accessible see-saw, and tactile marbles built into the side of a climbing structure.
Despite the success the playground has seen since its June opening, Rose said they are far from done. The Rotary hopes to garner support from two large corporations to put their name on the water area and the climbing wall respectively. Additionally, the Rotary aims to install a sensory garden on the opposite end of the Downtown Bellevue Park where a rose garden currently sits.
“Again, it’s for people with and without disabilities, but kind of a quiet area that is sensory rich with tactile sculptures and things to touch, see, smell, and things like that, that people with disabilities really enjoy,” Rose said.
All told, the Rotary hopes to raise another $600,000 before the project reaches completion. In addition to corporate sponsorship, Rose said the fundraising website still has a number of $250 decorative sponsorship leaves and $1,000 tulips available for private donation.
For more information about the Bellevue Downtown Park and the Inspiration Playground, visit the Bellevue Parks and Recreation Department online.