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Stimulating by design: Magazine honors force behind park

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The state’s first fully handicapped-accessible playground underwent a recent makeover.

Independence Park, a Center Grove-area recreation space, added a new autism-specific sensory stimulation space. Elsewhere, warped boards and railings were replaced around the shelter house.

Edie Caito walked the park, pointing out the additions and outlining her vision for its future. Teens will get their own play area with age-appropriate equipment. They can play in the new Bluetooth-enabled pod, with working lights and speakers to play their iPods inside.

New “skysurfer” boards give the impression of riding the air.

If you go

Center Grove Rocks the Park

When:10 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 1

Where: Independence Park, 2450 S. Morgantown Road, Greenwood

What: 12 bands, food, games, activities.

Cost: No admission, though donations to the park will be accepted

Sponsors: Organizers are looking for sponsors to help with the event, as well as to donate items for the silent auction. To do so, contact Edie Caito at 885-5890 or ecaito46143@gmail.com.

What you’ll find

What: Independence Park

Size: 13.5 acres

Where: 2450 S. Morgantown Road, Greenwood


8,000-square-foot playground area with more than 100 components, with rubberized surface underneath each component

Sensory playground area with 20 components for children with autism

Zero-grade wheelchair trail

.75-mile asphalt hiking trail

Full-court basketball court

Wheelchair basketball court

Large shelter house with benches overlooking playground area

Planned improvements:

Aero glider, a large-scale glider that is wheelchair accessible, $23,500

X-wave II, a piece that has a 30-foot-long bench that functions like a swinging glider, $6,950

Handicapped-accessible springing toys that rock back and forth, $3,400 each

Upgrades that include replacing high-backed swings with newer models that have over-the-shoulder harnesses that are made of plastic instead of fabric, and upgraded steel ramps to the play areas, $5,500 to $9,000

Teen playground pod with Bluetooth technology, $22,575

Custom play structure, $36,000

Sky surfer, $1,800 to $2,900

Caito was the engine behind Independence Park, coming up with the idea then recruiting hundreds of parents, children and volunteers to help make it a reality. Thirteen years later, she’s still working to maintain, upgrade and renovate the park.

Her efforts have drawn recognition from handicap-advocacy groups and Glamour Magazine, which chose her as one of the 10 most inspiring women in the country.

“When you see families up there with their able-bodied kids, and you see families with their disabled kids, the beautiful thing is that people don’t look twice at someone in a wheelchair or a walker. They play side-by-side with them, like it’s normal. And that was the whole goal of the playground,” Caito said.

For the past 13 years, Glamour has aimed to honor women the editors feel are particularly meaningful through the “Best of You Contest.”

One of this year’s nominees helped provide counseling and legal aid to women and children suffering from domestic abuse. Another started a school for at-risk youth.

And up against all of them is the story of Independence Park.

Caito submitted the details about her life’s work to the magazine, letting the editors know about the park and what she’s doing. Earlier in January, the magazine responded that she was chosen as one of the top-10 women in the country.

The magazine judges the top-four winners, with an online voting component also factoring into the calculation. Each winner receives $1,000 for her project, plus a photo shoot and feature write-up in Glamour.

“A lot of times, I still have to remind myself that this actually happened. I actually have a legacy, something I’ve left for my kids and my grandkids,” Caito said.

Inspired by her son

The inspiration for Independence Park came to Caito from her son, Dennis Searles.

At the time, Dennis was a seventh-grader at Center Grove. He was born with Sturge-Weber syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by a birthmark on his face and his brain. The syndrome causes retractable seizures, paralysis in part of his body and mental deficiencies.

When Caito started planning a 13th birthday party for Dennis, she was faced with an unexpected dilemma. Dennis and most of his friends had special needs that required wheelchairs, walkers or other devices to move around.

That prevented them from using playgrounds, parks and other fun places for the party.

“There was no place for them,” Caito said. “When the bell rang at the end of the day, that’s where their socialization stopped. It’s really kind of sad when your kids’ friends come visit, and they have no place to hang out.”

Caito had read an article about a nonprofit group that would hand-build playgrounds for students with disabilities. She felt that it would be a perfect solution to her problem.

Calling around to various city parks departments, she received interest from the Johnson County Parks Department, which was seeking a grant to develop a new park in the Center Grove area. The 13.5-acre property had been sold to the parks department to be turned into a recreation spot.

Parks department staff members initially suggested a small section of the park dedicated to the handicap-accessible equipment. But the more they spoke with Caito, the more the chance to do something completely different was too enticing.

“It’s added opportunity for inclusive recreation. If you have family members that have inclusive needs, you can have them play together with the other kids. They can explore on their own and not have to be excluded,” said Megan Bowman, superintendent of Johnson County Parks.

‘What can we do?’

With a parcel of land, they worked to raise money and find the equipment needed for their park.

The total price tag of the project was $1.5 million. Johnson County Parks contributed $250,000 to the development of the park, while grants from the Lilly Endowment and Build Indiana helped cover another $150,000. The rest came from donations and contributions made by the special needs community throughout central Indiana.

“When other parents heard about this, the first question was, ‘What can we do? What can my child do? How can we make this happen?’ They wanted it so badly,” Caito said. “They have parks for dogs and parks for skateboarders. Why not a park for wheelchairs?”

The park opened Sept. 17, 2000. For the first time, many handicapped children in Johnson County could use the swings, slides and other equipment on a playground designed with them in mind.

Parents had to adjust to the possibilities.

“I’ll remember that day the rest of my life. To see kids going off on their own, and frantic parents chasing after them. We’re not used to our kids being able to go,” she said. “They’d realize their children were playing with other kids. You’d tear up.”

Since then, organizers have made improvements where they could.

Last year, a group purchased musical equipment to construct a sensory station for autistic children. Kids can bang on handmade marimba, kalimba and drums, creating music that also helps calm their overloaded senses.

“Independence Park has been another place where our kids can go and be themselves. It lends itself very well to this community and has helped strengthen it,” said Sheila Benham, founder of the Johnson County Autism Support Group, which provided a grant for the instruments.

Funding always an issue

The main struggle for Independence Park supporters has been maintenance. The county parks department budget is perpetually in danger of being cut, leaving little for general upkeep, let alone additions.

That realization prompted Caito and her other volunteers to plan Center Grove Rocks the Park, a benefit concert, in 2012.

The goal is to raise $250,000 for park improvements. The equipment needs new ramps, and updates in adaptive technology means the children with disabilities can do even more by themselves.

On their wish list is a massive glider that holds four wheelchairs. When the kids are secured tightly to the glider, the contraption swings back and forth.

Better swings will help better secure children as they play.

The biggest goal is to create a custom-built teen playground. Older children, ages 13 and up, could go to their own area away from the main playground. Existing equipment isn’t designed for kids older than 12. This will provide a space that teenagers could claim as their own.

“Just hearing and seeing what she’s done, I commend (Caito) for all of her work in the past. We’re so lucky to have her and for trying to create these opportunities for everyone in the county,” Bowman said.

Caito sees these next upgrades as her final step in the Independence Park process. After they reach this goal, she is content to hand off the operation and step back from the forefront. She will have considered her job finished.

“We have all the groundwork laid out. The wish list is there. Now it’s just a matter of getting the funding,” she said. “I opened it the first go-around, and now I need to get it up to the right level. Then I can rest.”

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