A dream for Nicholas

A trip to the local playground to enjoy some outdoor activity and playtime is a normal activity for many families with young children.
But for children with physical disabilities, a trip to the playground can be a frustrating one, both for them and their parents.
For Nikki Wiedenhoeft, her husband Chris and their three children, their regular visits to the Lions Park cause mixed emotions.
To daughter Callahan, four, the park is an exciting place where she can exercise both her body and her imagination. But her older brother Nicholas cannot join her on the jungle gym or the swings.
Nicholas, 11, suffers from cerebral palsy and as a result is wheelchair-bound. While Callahan climbs and slides, he sits nearby in his wheelchair.
“Chris and I take turns. One of us will sit with Nicholas and the other will stay with Callahan,” Nikki explained.
Nicholas’ inability to participate in the play is sometimes perplexing for Callahan, who will often throw pennies in fountains, wishing her brother could run and play like she does.
When Nicholas was younger, his parents could simply lift him out of his wheelchair. Wiedenhoeft described swinging with little Nicholas on her lap.
“To hold him on a swing now, it’s just not feasible,” she noted.
Because Nicholas is also blind, motion is one of the main ways to stimulate his senses.
“Motion is so important to him because he can’t see,” his mother explained. “Motion and music.”
She described rocking and lifting him in the air when he was younger.
“Even as a baby, it would just light up his face. It’s what gives him quality of life,” she said.
“For eight years now, the park has been a heartbreaking place,” she added. “It’s frustrating and it’s sad.”
This is why the family is hoping a new piece of equipment for wheelchair users can be installed in the Lions Park this summer.
The local sorority, Beta Sigma Phi, Alpha Upsilon chapter, has been fundraising for a “Sway Fun” for nearly three years, yet have only half the money they need for the equipment.
A Sway Fun, produced by Landscape Structures in Minnesota, is a large glider that moves back and forth with the momentum of the people sitting inside. It will hold two wheelchairs, as well as several other people.
“It can fit up to a dozen people at a time,” Wiedenhoeft noted. She especially likes the fact it allows people with different levels of ability to swing together.
“It’s meant to integrate, and that’s the key point,” she said.
Children with physical disabilities are often segregated from children their own age due to their limitations. The Sway Fun would allow them to play together without barriers.
Other children who are wheelchair-bound can sometimes be lifted out of their chairs and placed in a regular swing, but it is not an ideal situation.
“To them, it’s like leaving their legs behind,” Wiedenhoeft noted, adding it can also be humiliating.
A wheelchair-accessible glider would mean they could retain their independence and mobility.
“It’s for all ages and abilities. It’s not just a handful of kids. You’re talking about a lot of people,” she said, noting seniors and other adults with mobility problems could benefit.
“This is a big deal,” she added. “It socializes, it provides fun, and it’s safe.”
According to the Landscape Structures web site, the Sway Fun is “the first wheelchair-accessible glider swing that meets all safety standards.”
“We would like it to be in the ground this year,” noted Helena Guertin, president of the Alpha Upsilon chapter.
The total cost of the unit is $15,000. So far, the sorority has raised about $7,800.
George Armstrong has agreed to donate any needed cement, gravel, and sand for the project.
In addition to the upcoming Beach Baby contest, the chapter is considering having additional fundraisers in the next few months to raise the remaining funds, like a tag day or a raffle.
The sorority is also applying for a Trillium grant.
“We definitely want it to happen this year,” Wiedenhoeft said, noting it’s also an opportunity for the town to take the lead in Northwestern Ontario.
“I think it will set the tone and set the stage. Fort Frances could be the leader. It will be such a great example,” she said. Playgrounds for children of all abilities are becoming increasingly common in the United States, she added.
Meanwhile, Callahan continues to make wishes for her brother.
“You mean our WHOLE family can go on it with Nicholas?” she asked incredulously when her mother described the glider to her.
“I asked her what she thought Nicholas would think of this when he goes on it and she said, ‘He will laugh and it will tickle his tummy, actually!’” Wiedenhoeft said.
With a little luck, her dreams for Nicholas may yet come true.