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Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)


You build a playground for the kids. But sometimes, it's not only the kids who benefit.

In Willmar, Minn., hundreds of volunteers worked from sunup to sundown for nine days late last month to create a playground that's fully accessible to children with disabilities — and open to all. In the process, townspeople got to know each other in ways they never had before.

In recent years, the political atmosphere in the Kandiyohi County city of 20,000 residents had grown sour. Disputes among the previous mayor, the previous city administrator and several City Council members led a city-hired consultant in 2013 to declare the council irredeemably dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, the social fabric had gradually changed, with an influx of new residents from non-European backgrounds over the past 25 years. The city needed something that everyone could support wholeheartedly, said Kathy Schwantes, a newly elected City Council member and co-leader of the playground project.

"We were in a place in the community where we needed to bring people together and find a common cause, something to work toward and build for," Schwantes said.

And they found it.

"We had people who had never met each other. And by the time they ended their shift, they had become friends," she said. "We had Anglos alongside East Africans alongside Latinos. This project allowed us to shine and show how good we can be."

The 19,000-square-foot playground is the largest fully accessible facility in the five-state area, said Rachel Skretvedt, the other co-leader. It includes a rubberized surface, ramps to the treehouse and princess castle, and a zip-line and a special swing, both of which can accommodate a wheelchair.

The community raised $900,000 for the project, including a $500,000 donation from Jennie-O Turkey Store, which is based in Willmar. Businesses and townspeople also paid $1,000 each to donate 14 benches, and bought more than 950 engraved pickets at $75 each for the playground fence.

"We had three shifts a day, and we had as many as 200 people a shift," Skretvedt said. "People also donated all the tools we used."

Skretvedt has lived in Willmar for more than six years, but said the experience of building the playground tied her to the community in a whole new way.

"I feel like a kid leaving camp," she said. "I found 100 new friends that I never had in 6½ years of living here."

John Reinan · 612-673-7402

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June 5, 2017


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