There is nothing more special than the smile of a child. But the smile of Mary McAuley was absolutely magical. Daughter of Rachel and Tommy McAuley, Mary passed away at the age of 14 due to complications from cerebral palsy.
Carol Ernst, family, friend and neighbor, says “Many aren’t around children like Mary. But you were drawn to her because of that big, beautiful smile. You couldn’t look away, it was captivating. That’s where the magic comes from in this playground idea.”
Mary’s Magical Place will be an all-inclusive playground designed around, but not limited to, children with special needs. It’s a place where ALL children and adults can come and play.
Mary’s family saw to it that she lived her short life fully. Their family motto was “where we go, she goes.” She did indeed. Mary went camping with a feeding pole and machine. She swam, biked and ran with special equipment. They rented an RV for vacations because Mary couldn’t fly. But the one thing she was unable to do was to have the simple joy of playing on a playground.
At 38½ weeks a placental abruption left Mary’s brain without oxygen for over two minutes. Rachel McAuley states, “Every second without oxygen, every minute, took a motor skill from our daughter.”
Later diagnosed with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, Mary had a feeding tube, became wheelchair bound, was non-verbal and developed scoliosis. “The one motor skill not damaged was her smile,” says Rachel McAuley.
The day Mary died Ernst shares, “I remember walking across the backyard wondering what you say to someone who’s lost a child. As I visited, Tommy found a photo of our kids on the playset behind my house. But Mary wasn’t in it.” She continues, “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if Hendersonville had something for handicapped kids.”
The idea would not leave her mind. So Ernst did research, shared the idea with Rachel McAuley and set out to make it happen with an Operations Committee that includes McAuley, Jennifer Finlin, Jen Motz and Hendersonville Parks Director, Brandon Rogers.
One year later they are a project of the Hendersonville Rotary Foundation, and the city has designated land beside the inline hockey rinks at Veterans Park. They’ve also narrowed it down to three playground designs and have raised over $100,000 of their $500,000 goal.
While there are other accessible playgrounds in Middle Tennessee, Mary’s Magical Place will truly be unique to the area. “Others have some degree of equipment, but our goal is to have three pieces that you don’t have to leave your chair for, and a main play structure with ramps all the way through so the child can explore it all,” says Ernst.
They met with parents, a nurse from Sumner Country Schools and an aide that works with the CDC program to find out exactly what might be needed for all special needs kids.
Ernst notes, “We discovered that children with cochlear implants are sensitive to static electricity, so we chose a turf that does not have static.” Other features include a sign language board, braille board and other activity panels as well as a play surface that’s a mix of turf and solid surfacing for ease of mobility.
While the design is for kids with any disability, it will also be fun for able-bodied children. “What some forget is that these kids have siblings. Mary’s brothers would have loved to play where she could play,” says Ernst.
The need is certainly there, Ernst shares that according to the Board of Education there are 4,000 children with disabilities in Sumner County and 10,000 children with disabilities in Davidson County.
Ernst and team haven’t forgotten about disabled adults either. She states, “We understand the difficulties of navigating most playgrounds; even accessible ones likely have mulch. I can only imagine not being able to take your child or grandchild to play. It would be so hard.”
For Ernst personally, “I have been involved with many fundraising projects but don’t think there’s ever been one that I’ve been more passionate about. And people are so moved by Mary’s story.”
Fundraising began this past March with donations coming from individuals, large and small organizations, local events and even children who’ve done lemonade stands to help. The money will continue to be raised towards the $500,000 goal through next August with plans to break ground in late fall or early winter of 2017.
Ernst believes, “Mary’s Magical Place will be a destination for Hendersonville. When people realize this is here, they will come to play, eat lunch and spend their tax dollars even if it’s a bit of a drive. It may even draw people to move here because there’s nothing else like it around.”
The playground will also create awareness. “These kids won’t be invisible anymore; you’ll be able to play next to them and get to know them.” Ernst continues, “And with the location right behind the ‘Welcome to Hendersonville’ sign, what better way to show what this community is about.”
Ernst says, “I can’t wait to see that first child swing.” And I’m sure the rest of Hendersonville can’t either.
To donate, visit MarysMagicalPlace.org
Equipment – $225,000
Solid Surfacing/Turf – $150,000
Pavilion – $25,000
Site Prep – $8,000
Installation – $60,000
Concrete Walkways – $14,000
Fencing – $14,000
Donor Wall – $4,000
Total – $500,000