Joshua Morales was just 7 years old the first time he remembers how different he was from the other kids.
He was at a birthday party with friends, who were all running around and playing and going down a slide. Although he was confined to a wheelchair, Morales managed to pull himself out of his chair to try to go down the slide as well. Some kids laughed and pointed.
“Why are you trying to act like a normal person?,” one of them shouted.
One of the special guests when a ribbon was officially cut at New Tampa’s All-Abilities Park and the park opened to kids just like him on Dec. 21, Joshua shared that story, which he would rather forget.
“But, it stuck to me like glue,” he said.
As one of more than a handful of special guests and dignitaries who received recognition as the All-Abilities Park — located within the boundaries of the New Tampa Community Park in Tampa Palms — opened, Joshua was a shining example of what the park will be all about.
The idea was initiated by District 7 Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera, whose older brother Juan suffers from mental disabilities. At a final cost of roughly $2 million, the park is expected to be a beacon for children who may not feel they fit in at other parks.
“The park for me is about a basic idea, which is respect, dignity, security and inclusivity,” Viera said, recalling some of the moments he witnessed as a child when his brother wasn’t welcomed at places like a movie theater or a park. “The basic message the City of Tampa has for families like the Viera family is that you are welcome here.”
Others, like Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, State Senator Jay Collins and State Representative and Florida State House minority leader Fentrice Driskell shared the same message before a crowd of about 75 people.
The 10,000-sq.-ft., state-of-the-art playground has something for anyone with physical, cognitive, sensory and/or neuro diverse disabilities.
There are two small zip lines, one with a large seat to sit in, and two large swings, including one that slides back and forth and is wheelchair accessible.
For three-year-old Petra Farabee, there was plenty to do. Petra steered her wheelchair in between the adults and around the park like a pro, looking for new things to try. She even helped her dad Adam get a good bit of exercise trying to keep up with her.
Born with spina bifida, Petra was able to enjoy most of what the playground offered, including a see-saw with large seats that allowed her to have a break from her wheelchair (see photo on page 1).
“I think she likes it,” Adam said, smiling.
The park features a number of interactive pieces, like drums, a xylophone and chimes. There also is a learning board in three languages, including braille, a communication board for those who do not verbally communicate, and even a Pulse table tennis game that uses sensors, lights and sounds.
“It’s an amazing park,” Joshua said. “I’ve never seen one like it, and it will be great for kids to make friends and play with people they can relate to.”
The park is equipped with benches and tables and next to each bench is a power station that can be used to charge wheelchairs or other devices, if needed.
A mural (photo above left), by Pep Rally, Inc., a team of St. Petersburg and Tampa artists that focuses on brand identity, murals and installation art — entitled “Wild Florida Parade” — has vibrant colors and offers a tactile experience for low- to no-vision children, with carved grooves. The mural also is designed at a height that makes it wheelchair accessible.
For parents of any child who has experienced a summer day at a Florida playground, the best things about the New Tampa All Abilities Playground might be the safe, rubber surface, the large sails that provide an ample amount of protection from the sun, and a misting station that was built with $15,000 raised by the Rotary Club of New Tampa.
“This is a wonderful, wonderful addition to the New Tampa area, and to the entire city,” said Mayor Castor.
Joshua, now a 17-year-old senior at Sumner High in Ruskin, tried out the zip line and gave it a thumbs-up.
Diagnosed with transverse myelitis at 22 months leading to a spinal cord injury, Joshua has still managed to live a full life. He has played baseball, basketball, sled hockey, wheelchair rugby and has been able to go water skiing, practice jiu-jitsu and write music. He even got to sing one of his original rap songs at the ribbon cutting.
“I would have loved to have a park like this when I was younger,” he said.
For Viera, the ribbon cutting marked the completion of one of his first goals when he was elected in 2018.
Although the initial park plans had to be changed and a new site had to be found following complaints from a nearby neighborhood, the final result is definitely a rousing success..
“It doesn’t matter your disability,” Viera told the excited crowd, “you are welcome here.”