It was as though a magic wand fell into my hands the day I was granted approval from the City of Palo Alto to create the kind of playground I thought our town needed. With the most fantastic volunteer board around, we researched, dreamed and reached out to generous donors. Almost eight years later in April of 2015, Magical Bridge playground opened to the public and our lives have never been the same. With a thriving Foundation, we are now able to grant wishes to all those families who can finally connect with others through the joy of play.
I didn’t always believe in magic. In fact, my second daughter Ava’s birth in 2003 tossed my whole life into an abrupt panic, confusion, worry and despair. Those first few years were as devastating as you would imagine and there was no getting around it. Our precious newborn daughter was going to be different, very different. Yes, she would be categorized as a “special needs” child with no real diagnosis in sight, but would need a lot of services and right away – speech, occupational and physical therapies. She would need to be monitored and supported by our local Regional Center which, for those who aren’t familiar, means she would remain in “the system” from cradle to grave. The implications of it all were exhausting and we felt like, despite living in the Stanford University community and hub of research, there were no answers for us.
At around Ava’s fifth birthday, my husband and I were coming to terms that not only does Ava have no diagnosis, but no one really knew what do for her. My wonderful dad helped pull us out of our fog with some in-home support services so we could begin readjusting our lives and not overlooking our other daughter Emma. I will make the assumption that friends on the outside looking in had no idea how deep our devastation was.
As we began adjusting to what life would be, we aimed to recreate moments we enjoyed with our other daughter when she was young. Our neighborhood park was the first place I ventured into for all that community building and connecting. At some point, local parents could be found swinging their kids at Johnson Park, Mitchell Park and the many others scattered throughout our tree-lined streets of Palo Alto. In fact, all the specialists who saw Ava agreed on one piece of advice: get her to move in the great outdoors and take her swinging. Yes, swinging was some serious business and was also referred to as “vestibular input”. This was indeed a core element of integrating a child’s sensory systems. In fact, I learned that swinging was essential for typical development and had a powerful impact on a brain’s ability to process information. Sadly, my hope for Ava enjoying any such benefits was instantly crushed when I realized her trunk support was underdeveloped to be placed in a swing and she flopped over when inserted into the child harness. It was at the height of my despair that I approached the city of Palo Alto to let me create a new kind of playground. One, covertly created for children like Ava but overtly, it would be the most incredible playground ever.
Fast forward to today, when Redwood City city council unanimously approved a Magical Bridge playground for their own community. Like a big group hug, I sat in between Redwood City friends, Magical Bridge board members and my dear friend Jill Asher, who tirelessly and meticulously thought through every detail needed to make last night a magical win for us all! Our online engine and brochures beaming, of course, thanks to the meticulous and spectacular work of the other founder of our playground and foundation and talented friend Kris Loew. These women have chosen to join me in this world of the unknown that I found myself in with Ava. It is because they believed in my vision and added their astounding talents to the playground that we have come this far. There is nothing more magical than making the world a more playful place for all while deepening true friendships.
The emotions of this milestone are profoundly deep, as am so grateful that I was capable of recognizing the gift of Ava. I am grateful that my deep love for her inspires so many to be the change for countless others like her. What started as a playground for my own child, quickly became a playground for so many others. Our circle of inclusion grew and grew and now, what we bring is the hope that one day everyone will have a true community park. Not a “special needs” park. Not an “inclusive park” but a real community playground to celebrate the unique people who live in our communities.
When my then 9 year old daughter Emma came up with the name “Magical Bridge,” she had no idea how beautifully that name would grow with us. There is no better word to capture the journey that brought me to this very moment, and continues with a promise to transform the playing and belonging as another playground gets built. Believe in all the magic that comes with this community and join us as we get started with Redwood City!
Kindly consider supporting our efforts to fully fund the Redwood City Magical Bridge Playground. All donations over $300 will be recognized with a physical tile on our donor wall, located inside the playground.
About Olenka Villarreal, Founder of Visionary of Magical Bridge Playground and Magical Bridge Foundation
Favorite thing at Magical Bridge Playground: “I love the top level of the playhouse café — gazing over the magic of the playground through the beautiful windows above the stage always makes my day!”
One of the most playful people you’ll ever meet, Olenka is the heart of Magical Bridge. Earning an undergraduate degree from Pomona College and MBA from Golden Gate University, Olenka spent 18 years working with start-up and technology companies in Silicon Valley. When her second daughter was born with disabilities in 2003, she turned her focus on improving the quality of life of those with disabilities. In addition to being Founder of the Magical Bridge Playground, and Magical Bridge Foundation, Olenka guest lectures at Stanford University, serves on the Board of Directors for Life Services Alternatives and Friends of the Palo Alto Parks and is a frequent speaker about the magic of inclusion. In June 2014, she was presented with the prestigious Jefferson Service Award in recognition for her efforts to make the Magical Bridge Playground a reality, and April 2016, Olenka was awarded the Outstanding Citizen Volunteer Tall Tree award from the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce. Olenka and her creative and musical husband live in Palo Alto with their two beautiful daughters.