Scott Carpenter
The Union Democrat

Check it out

To make donations to the nonprofit, go to BigDreamsPlaygrounds.com or contact Sarah Garcia at BigDreamsUAPP@hotmail.com .

She didn’t know it then, but Sarah Garcia got her inspiration years ago, when she would help her daughter into a baby swing set at the playground long after Ruby had outgrown it.

Or when she carried her across the soft bark-covered surface long after Ruby ought to have been able to cross it by herself.

Garcia wants to build Tuolumne County’s first public playground that is fully accessible to the disabled. But the project has not been easy.

In 2012, she founded a nonprofit called Big Dreams and now serves as its president. Today it has raised about $200,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, but that’s still not quite half of the estimated $450,000 needed to build the playground.

In 2009, about six months after the birth of their daughter, Garcia and her husband learned that Ruby had cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that makes coordinated movement difficult. Ruby had suffered a stroke before she was born, doctors said.

While Ruby was oblivious to her disability, life for Garcia soon became exhausting. And that was never more true than when she took her daughter to public playgrounds.

“It just reminded me again and again that she was different from the other kids,” she said.

The playground would join a collection of parks across the country that go beyond compliance with the American with Disabilities Act and instead are fitted with ramps, rubber turf and other features that make for easy use by the wheelchair-bound or otherwise disabled.

The new playground will be built on a piece of county land in Tuolumne adjacent to the main park in downtown. Although its central feature will be the playground, it will be surrounded by a small park that includes benches and landscaping.

Garcia said public officials, including the county’s Board of Supervisors, are enthusiastic about the project and have paved the way for its construction.

“It was actually fairly easy because of what it is and who it’s serving,” said Garcia, who now works in the Tuolumne County Recreation Department as the activity coordinator. “It’s a population in our community that needs this.”

The idea was born in 2011 when Ruby began appointments at California Children’s Services, a state program that provides services to disabled children. Garcia made friends with a group of other parents of disabled children who lived in the area. Together, they discovered that the nearest playground that their children could use was in Folsom, nearly 80 miles away.

Upset, Garcia and the other parents “decided to come together to make something happen,” she recounted.

Since then, what was originally envisioned as a project that would take just two or three years has stretched into something longer. With help from the other parents and from community members, Garcia formed and became president of a nonprofit, Big Dreams Universally Accessible Parks and Playgrounds, which now consists of a five-member volunteer board and several other volunteer members.

Thanks to annual fundraisers and two county-wide mailers, the group has now raised about $200,000 in cash or in-kind donations.

In the end, that money will go to cover labor and materials costs, including landscaping, new fencing, playground equipment and a rubber safety surface. Construction costs are also significant, but labor and materials donations by local companies have helped to defray total estimations.

Still, to reach the needed total of about $450,000, more time is required. Years, perhaps.

“I was hoping two to three years” for the entire project, said Garcia. “And that’s where we are right now.”

Today, Garcia’s daughter Ruby is 7 and attends Soulsbyville Elementary School. Thanks to regular therapy sessions, she can now “get up on” the playground equipment that once defied her, including swings and slides, said Garcia.

But Garcia says it isn’t about her daughter anymore.

“Through all this time, I realized it’s not a park for her, it’s a park for the whole community, and for all the people I haven’t even met yet,” she said. “It just started with her. It’s still something we’re all really passionate about.”

The group plans to hold one of its annual fundraisers Sept. 17, a Saturday, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Called “Starry Night: Dinner in White.” Attendees are asked to wear all-white and to stand by for word about a “top secret” venue to be disclosed on the day of the event. Rock-and-roll band Uplands Drive will provide music, and there will be a live and silent auctions.

Contact Scott Carpenter at (209) 588-4525 or scarpenter@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @Scott_In_Sonora.

14676344