By Laura Newberry
Ryan Grube sat at the picnic tables next to the playground with a big grin on his face.
"I like this park because of that spinny thing over there," he said, pointing at a plastic red piece of equipment similar to a merry-go-round. "It makes me dizzy."
The 18-year-old Boyertown High School student and 11 others from his life skills class took a midday field trip to the borough's community park on Wednesday. The trip was part of a new effort to get more kids to utilize the playground, which was constructed especially for those with special needs.
Such playgrounds, coined "Playgrounds For Everyone," have recently sprouted up across the U.S. They're driven by a federal requirement that all playgrounds built or altered after March 14, 2012, have wheelchair-friendly surfaces and equipment that helps children with physical challenges move around.
The Boyertown Community Park was built in 2010 after a two-year fundraising effort by the borough's Rotary Club to raise the $235,000 needed to construct it.
But Rotary Club President Charles Haddad said the use of the park by kids with special needs has been discouragingly sparse so far.
"Oftentimes you spend so much effort building something you don't follow through and make sure it's used the way it was intended," he said. "That's what we're concentrating on now."
After a Rotarian spoke about the issue at a September school board meeting, the district's main transportation provider, Quigley Bus Service, made contact with the Rotary Club and offered to bus classes to the park during school hours, free of charge.
Wednesday's trip is the first combined attempt by the school district and the Rotarians to get kids out to the park.
Haddad said he hopes to coordinate similar trips with the elementary and middle schools. The Rotary Club also plans to contact surrounding school districts to let them know the park is available to students.
"The idea is to introduce them to the park and to the equipment so their families can bring them on their own," he said.
Boyertown's playground is one of three Playgrounds for Everyone in Berks County, along with The Backyard at Opportunity House in Reading and Locust Street Park in Fleetwood, according to an NPR database that lists such playground locations across the U.S.
The playground has a rubber surface for children with wheelchairs that's also soft enough to cushion falls, ramps to the playground equipment and a Braille tic-tac-toe game.
Megan Urban, a first-year teacher at Boyertown High School who teaches the life skills support class, explained that Wednesday's playground visit is considered a "community based instruction trip," which foster social interactions between the students and others in the community.
"A lot of times these kids go under the radar, and people forget about them," she said as she walked behind her students on the trail surrounding the playground. "Being able to have this kind of park and have them visible by both other kids and other adults, I think it makes it more of an inviting and inclusive community."
Grube is happy to get to the park, and to get out of class for a couple of hours.
"It's fun coming here because I live here," he said, "and it's just awesome to come to your own park and play with all your friends."