Karen Gordon has dedicated her life in service to others. When she was a girl, her father raised her to always “take care of her community.” The message wasn’t lost on Gordon, and after college, she went on to become one of the first female students admitted to the LSU Veterinary program. When she graduated, she came back home to Shreveport and was the first female veterinarian in the area.
In the early 90’s, it was discovered that some of the employees at the Bossier Animal Shelter were being cruel to kittens. She saw a problem and was determined to fix it. Gordon helped form a nonprofit that brought the issue to light and the offending employees were let go as a result. When hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Gordon found herself in New Orleans working with a group from Utah that was pulling animals that had been left behind out of abandoned homes. The work was dirty and dangerous. The work lasted two weeks, and several pets owe her their life.
In 1998 Gordon came across an article about a playground in Connecticut. It was a new concept called the Boundless Playground. Its aim was to build a playground that was inclusive to people with disabilities, such as those who are wheelchair bound or have other physical limitations.
Remembering what her father told her, she decided that Shreveport needed a boundless playground. She formed the Right To Play nonprofit in 1999 and embarked on a seven-year journey to raise enough funds for construction.
At the beginning she was alone, but soon she had a seven-member board of directors. The organization sought partners and enlisted the help of playground designers, architects, artists, physical therapists, special needs educators, and parents of children with disabilities. Before they could even work on a design, they had to find a venue.
They narrowed the locations down to two finalists. Betty Virginia Park and A.C. Steere park. The nonprofit had specific guidelines regarding the location. It had to be an area that wouldn’t easily flood, and most importantly, it had to be on the Sportran bus line. The nonprofit determined that A.C. Steere Park was the best fit.
After convincing everyone who had a stake in the park that a boundless playground was needed, the nonprofit began the fundraising. They were aided by a multitude of private donors, with Gordon doing most of the active fundraising herself. They determined that to build the park they wanted, and the park she felt the community deserved, they determined they would need around $250,000.
Donors were large and small. Some private citizens gave small donations, while companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield gave $20,000. They were aided by bonds from the Steere family that had been given to the city in the 1970s that were to be used exclusively on a playground for children. The organization fought with the city and were eventually given those funds as well.
With enough money to begin, the planning started. Most importantly, the ground had to be solid, to allow for wheelchair use. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a playground with mulch or rubber flooring is considered compliant, but Right To Play tested these and found that they do not allow for easy wheelchair use.
It was decided that concrete would be used, but to pour the concrete, the nonprofit needed a drainage system to keep the area dry. Unfortunately, the area at A.C. Steere where they were given was slightly lower than the rest of the 11-acre park. Gordon wasn’t deterred by this and decided instead to install a drainage system across the whole park. With the foundation secured, it was time to decide on the playground itself.
Gordon is many things; veterinarian, mother, hot air balloon pilot, but she isn’t a playground designer. She enlisted the help of professional, who worked for a New York-based company, and the foundation began collaborating with their designer. Then that company went bankrupt, but the designer was determined to help Right To Play regardless of his company’s situation. The designer needed to see the area, so Karen convinced members of the community to donate their frequent flier miles to bring the designer to Shreveport.
The designer didn’t work alone. The community came together so that every voice was represented, most importantly, the children who would be using it. Children with special needs from several different schools submitted designs, a physical therapist ensured all pieces of the park were wheelchair accessible and that every piece could provide a therapeutic experience to those you used it. “Playing is therapy,” Gordon said.
Once the design for the first section was agreed upon, it was time for a name. Right To Play organized a citywide contest where children submitted ideas for a name. The board finally agreed upon Leaps and Bounds.
When the first equipment arrived, it was up to Right To Play to erect it. Luckily, several community groups came together and were able to get everything set up in just 4 days.
The playground opened and it was a hit. Children came from all over the city to play there.
Leaps and Bounds isn’t just a playground for children with disabilities, the beauty of it is that it has several pieces that allow for “parallel play”, where able-bodied children and play and run around with children with disabilities simultaneously. “No one is left out that way” Gordon says.
The playground not only has pieces designed especially for children with physical limitations but also children that have behavioral disabilities as well. “There are several pieces in the park that are designed for children with Autism”. There interactive pieces that provide tactile stimulation, as well as safe spaces for children who become easily excited to “go and hide” while still being able to be seen by their parents.
One thing Gordon wishes she saw more of are adults with disabilities using the park. “Moms and Dads in a wheelchair have space where they can play with their children in their lap”. She also wishes she saw more disabled veterans take an interest because she believes some of the pieces that were designed for children would also benefit them.
For years the park prospered, but as Leaps and Bounds turned 10 years old, Gordon started to see signs of decay and vandalism. Adults would smoke cigarettes and toss their butts on the ground there, or leave have eaten food on the ground. Vandals spray painted slurs and curse words on the equipment and destroyed some of the pieces in the music area. A few years ago a group of people came to the playground at night and dug up on of the pieces designed for toddlers, and due to changing ADA requirements, it cannot be replaced.
The community was appalled when they saw this, and recently a group of citizens got together and cleaned up the graffiti. It’s a great start, but Gordon says without continuous monitoring from the City, it’ll keep happening. “The city has cameras that overlook the park, but I’m not sure if they are ever reviewed. I hope the vandals are identified and caught” she says.
Right To Play members and private citizens have been cleaning up the park by themselves for years, but their resources are dwindling. “I just can’t do as much as I used to,” she says “I’ve been at this for almost 20 years, it’s time for someone else to step up, whether that’s a private company, the city, SPAR, or just an ordinary citizen.” Gordon and the board are hoping that this year’s Make A Difference Day on October 28th will net the organization enough money to make much-needed repairs.
Even with the vandalism, theft, and garbage, the playground is still an amazing asset to the community. Not only is it the only Boundless playground in the area, it’s also one of the only ones in the entire state.
One thing remains clear as you walk through the playground, that despite the issues it faces, the children who use it are having a great time.
If you would like to make a donation or volunteer, visit the Right To PLay website at http://righttoplay.org/