USM dedicates new playground for children with disabilities

LONG BEACH, MS (WLOX) - A project to help children with disabilities in South Mississippi has returned to USM Gulf Park. The campus once had a playground, but it closed several years ago due to lack of funding, maintenance and it was deemed unsafe.

The Lions Clubs International Foundation received millions of dollars in donations after Hurricane Katrina. It chose to spend some of those funds on bringing the playground back to Long Beach.

Three-year-old Colton Flowers was among the first to try out the new Technology Learning Center Playground Wednesday. His mom designed the fun space for children with physical and learning disabilities, and for able-bodied little ones like Colton.

"You can be creative. You can facilitate animation. You can encourage teamwork and you can promote self confidence with this equipment," said TLC Coordinator Ashley-Nicole Ross Flowers.

The Lions Clubs International Foundation provided a $21,000 grant to build the TLC playground at USM Gulf Park. It is located next to the TLC building, on the west side of the tennis courts.

"I think it's fantastic. That's seven years that we've worked on this and all of a sudden it's come to fruition. So it's great that we have this program in place," said Howard Jenkins, Past Director of Lions Clubs International.

"There's two fold. One is to get our kids physically active, including kids with disabilities, as well as showing that everything we have in the community ought to be inclusive of all of its citizens and all of its children," said Royal Walker, USM Institute for Disability Studies Executive Director.

All the tables and games are at eye level and the area is wheelchair accessible. For instance, the slide has a ramp that is elevated to help children move from their wheelchair to the slide, and grass pavers allow wheelchairs to roll back and forth with ease.

The joyous sounds of children playing caught the attention of one of Santa's helpers. James Webber was decked-out as the jolly old elf. He is also an amputee who volunteers at the center.

"This is an excellent playground. It's wonderful for the children. It has nice grass, river rock, a lot of equipment to play on," said Webber.

"It's nothing better than seeing smiling children."

There are plans to expand the playground by adding a kitchen unit, tree house, swing and an amphitheater. USM is looking for organizations to help sponsor those stations.

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