Magical Friendship. Image of Ava Villarreal and Isabel Miranda

 

This is the journey of two fierce-warrior mothers, two beautiful daughters with disabilities, and two families struggling to find safe and fun places to play as a family. Olenka Villarreal and Laurel Miranda met in the early 2000s at Palo Alto’s Abilities United (now called AbilityPath) during a special needs preschool class.  Their daughters Ava and Isabel were born with developmental and cognitive disabilities, and both families had limited play opportunities in their Silicon Valley communities. Where innovation and technology was changing the world right in their backyard, there was no road map to thrive when raising children like Ava and Isabel. So it was at this “magical” preschool class that these two tech executives found each other, formed a deep friendship, and set out on a course to make their communities more welcoming for not only their families, but for everyone.

Coincidentally, both Ava and Isabel had older siblings who were neurotypical.  As parents raising young children with differing abilities and needs, Olenka and Laurel found it extremely challenging to find a playground where both of their children could enjoy, thrive, and be safe.  “Typical” playgrounds that were fun for their older siblings were  not thoughtfully designed for Ava and Isabel. (equipment didn’t fit their bodies, they were too frenetic and noisy, there was no fencing, sand/tanbark, boulders were tripping hazards). “Special needs” or “ADA-compliant” public playgrounds were simply not meeting the play needs of either Olenka or Laurel’s families. 

Crushing Experiences on the Playground. When Laurel took Isabel to a playground, she was worried about Isabel fitting in. Would Isabel be accepted by other kids at the playground? Would her “odd” behaviors make others stare? Would parents think Laurel was a bad mother for having a kid that seemed to be, even at a young age, a square peg in a round hole? To Laurel’s dismay,  kids would stare and point at Isabel. Even with Laurel by Isabel’s side, kids would turn and ask, “What is wrong with her?”  Worse was when families would move away, as if Isabel’s disability was contagious.  At home, Isabel was the heart of the home; they loved and adored everything about her. It would break Laurel’s heart for Isabel’s disabilities to be the focus of attention and ridicule, and even worse, for her to be excluded.  Because Isabel was so much more than her disability.

Like many parents raising children with disabilities, finding a place for a playdate was challenging.  Where could these moms take their girls to play together, outside of their protected preschool class?  Planning a playdate with Ava and Isabel was not as easy as “let’s meet up at 11 AM tomorrow at the park.” What park or playground would be safe and fun for both girls? They had to factor in the mood swings, plan around medicine, and even their  lunch schedules.  Olenka remembers having to cancel many play dates because Ava was sleeping off a seizure. There were so many variables that affected coordination with these “special” and wonderful girls.

Both moms tried extraordinary things to help their daughters.  While Olenka tried therapies, physical and occupational appointments, meetings with neurologists and even a nutrient rich diet, Laurel learned sign language in order to have a nonverbal way to communicate with Isabel.  There were even specialist appointments around the globe to try to diagnose and “cure” the girls.  Some things worked, most things did not.  But they both remained hopeful  and were always open to possibilities of doing whatever they could for their daughters. 

Image of Olenka and Ava Villarreal.

The Lightbulb Moment. When Ava was three years old, she was no longer able to fit into a bucket swing at the neighborhood playground, yet she did not have the upper arm strength or the cognitive ability to use a “typical” swing.  The doctors were telling Olenka that swinging, spinning, and sliding (also called vestibular movement), was critical for Ava’s brain development. By swinging at a young age, Ava would be able to learn critical development skills such as body awareness, balance, and coordination.  Since there was no playground in Olenka’s hometown of Palo Alto, California, she would drive an hour each way to the one and only physical and occupational therapist, pay $150 out of pocket (insurance did not cover her expenses), and swing Ava once a week in various indoor swings.  This was  when Olenka  realized that she should be able to do this for free at her local playgrounds! Olenka reached out to the Palo Alto Parks and Recreation team to ask them where kids like Ava could play.  Their response was that all their 34 playgrounds were “ADA” compliant.  Meaning, they met the standards of the American’s with Disabilities Act yet for Olenka and her family, they were forgotten and left out.  

Image of Olenka, Ava, and Emma Villareal – playing at Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto, CA.

To their credit, the City of Palo Alto stepped up and told Olenka that she could build the type of playground and play space that she envisioned; one that was not a “special needs” playground, rather, one that met the needs of the entire family.  She dreamed about a place that the very young, the very old, and everyone in between could play together.  Regardless of ability, disability, size, or age, everyone at every stage of life could enjoy the love of play and community connection.  She just had to design it and privately raise the funds to make it happen.

After eight long years of community engagement, fundraising of $4.2M, design and construction, Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park opened to the public in April 2015.  With interest to create and build Magical Bridge Playgrounds and Parks, the birth of Magical Bridge Foundation launched in January 2016, with the goal to expand these innovative and accessible playgrounds throughout the Bay Area, country, and worldwide. Magical Bridge Playground in Redwood City’s Red Morton Park opened in December 2020, and Magical Bridge Playground in Morgan Hill, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Santa Clara will open in the near future.  

Olenka and Laurel’s Friendship Strengthened.  The friendship of these  fierce and forward-thinking women remained strong and grew through the years.  After the Magical Bridge in Palo Alto opened, they would meet up at the playground and watch their daughters enjoy a typical day in a park where they truly belonged.  They felt safe at the playground because they knew people came there with an awareness and acceptance of people with differences.  Their daughters were able to swing, spin, slide, and be kids, just like everyone else, and they were safe, too! Instead of focusing on what their girls couldn’t do, Magical Bridge removed traditional barriers of play through thoughtful and mindful design, and celebrated what they could do.  As a result, they noticed it was becoming a gathering spot for other families like theirs – those with a blend of abilities and disabilities.  They also noticed that kindness and acceptance of everybody was a fundamental underpinning of the Magical Bridge experience, and families of all abilities were attracted to this idea.  They also knew many families with typically developing kids wanted their kids to be exposed to kids with disabilities.  It is how the world should be!

Image of Isabel Miranda participating in science experiments at CuriOdyssey.

Making CuriOdyssey More Magical.  While Olenka focused on expanding regional destination Magical Bridge Playgrounds and parks, Laurel joined the Executive Board of the CuriOdyssey Museum.  When her children were young, Laurel found it challenging to find a place to take both of her kids where they could enjoy themselves and be in an enclosed, safe environment.  CuriOdyssey was one of the places where she could take her typically developing son and her daughter with disabilities, and they could both have a fantastic time.  Laurel was attracted to their hands-on approach to teaching science and making it approachable to people of all developmental ages.  Exhibits were designed to be rich, real, and appeal to all visitors.  No matter what stage of development, from toddlers to adults, people enjoy being at CuriOdyssey and there is always something new to learn.  No exhibit was exactly the same each time you interacted with it, and this fierce advocate for education knew this was a place she had to be a part of.

Image of Laurel Miranda (left) and Olenka Villarreal (right)

Combining the Power of Magical Bridge and CuriOdyssey. With full support of the CuriOdyssey Board, Laurel approached Olenka with the idea of  adding a new and inclusive experience similar to a Magical Bridge playground into their beautiful outdoor space. Both Laurel and Olenka knew the urgent need for more places to be designed with all ages and abilities in mind, and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to create some real “magic.”   

Olenka knew about the passion CuriOdyssey had for engaging young people in science, and CuriOdyssey was a place Ava loved to visit. Here, children like Ava were able to freely and safely walk around, greet the animals, and enjoy the exhibits.  Olenka also recognized that the playground was the first outdoor classroom, where children learn to be accepting and kind. Both Olenka and Laurel wanted to create a more welcoming world where their two girls could thrive. Of course, these two powerhouse moms knew that combining their efforts and passion was not an option.  It was needed now, more than ever. 

In July 2021, CuriOdyssey announced construction for the first phase of a new campus to create a world-class center for early science learning in San Mateo County. Along with a new exhibit gallery, two new learning labs and a sweeping view of the bay,  In August 2021, Magical Bridge Foundation and CuriOdyssey announced the creation of “Whooosh!,” a custom Magical Bridge Playground.  The first of its kind, Whooosh! will be a “physics in action” playground for children and adults of all abilities and disabilities, and located right next to CuriOdyssey’s zoo.  The new construction will fulfill their mission to inspire the love of science and curiosity about the world to create a brighter future, while giving every visitor the ability to spin, slide, swing, and move through physics in action.  Educators from around the globe will come to CuriOdyssey to learn how best to teach science to developing minds and make San Mateo County and the Bay Area more welcoming for families like hers.

 For Olenka and Laurel, it is important that places like Magical Bridge and CuriOdyssey welcome and embrace all people, including those who experience the world differently.  Given the global challenges we currently face, we need everyone – especially those who think differently – to help solve our problems.  We are building a foundation for children that may someday solve tomorrow’s greatest problems, whether it be curing a pandemic, resolving rising sea levels, or perhaps some other challenges we haven’t even considered.  By ensuring that today’s children have a solid foundation in science and respect for differences is one gift they can give towards future generations.  It is their legacy, and indeed, it is MAGICAL. 

Modeled after the all-inclusive Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto, Whooosh! is expected to open to visitors in October 2021 and will include:

  • Shade and sensory benefits provided by the surrounding redwood trees and native plants
  • Swinging zone with disc and tandem swings
  • Spinning zone with group and ground spinners 
  • Tot zone with items for our very youngest visitors
  • Slide mound for sliding and rolling down
  • Hideaway hut to provide respite from active play 
  • Custom donor wall of gratitude to celebrate those who supported this project.

********

If your museum, zoo, hospital, park, or city is interested in bringing a truly inclusive play spaces to your site, kindly reach out to Olenka Villarreal at Olenka@magicalbridge.org or kindly complete this form.  Magical Bridge Foundation would love to help bring the MAGIC of inclusive play to your space.