A Beach Park for EveryBODY

Teen with LGMD helps design accessible playground in Virginia Beach

Caroline Pennell's experience as a wheelchair user enabled her to make important contributions to the park's design and the choice of accessible playground equipment.
Article Highlights:
  • Virginia teenager Caroline Pennell made several key improvements to the design of an accessible beach park and playground opening May 22.
  • The park and playground will give people with disabilities a chance toamong other thingsplay in the sand, pretend to surf with dolphins, or just sit and look at the ocean from an elevated platform.
  • Pennell, a ninth-grader who uses a wheelchair for mobility, is also a talented painter who has had two seascapes accepted into the MDA art collection.
by Miriam Davidson on May 12, 2010 - 4:01pm

Designers of a new accessible beach park in Virginia Beach, Va., are very glad they asked Caroline Pennell, of Chesterfield, to look over their plans. The 14-year-old with limb girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD) came up with the best idea of all. 

“I suggested they make the ramp go up to the highest place,” says Pennell, a ninth-grader and MDA spokeswoman. As a person who uses a wheelchair for mobility, Pennell understands what it’s like to never have a view of anything but bellies and backsides.

The project’s architects, WPL Site Design, took Pennell’s suggestion to heart and added a long, gently-inclined ramp that leads to a “lookout” deck six feet above the ground. The deck has room for four wheelchairs, as well as several accessible telescopes. It provides a bird’s-eye view of the park, beach, and ocean that disabled people rarely get to see.

An architectural drawing placed inside a photo shows what the park and playground will look like when completed. 

Pennell also chose the color scheme for the park — dark blue, light blue, and a sand-tone beige — and helped pick the equipment and games. “They were very enthusiastic and accepting of every idea I gave,” she says.

JT’s Grommet Island

Scheduled to open May 22, the 15,000-square-foot park was the idea of Virginia Beach developer Bruce Thompson, whose adult son, Josh, has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Frustrated by the lack of places where Josh, formerly an amateur surfer, could play with his kids on the beach, Thompson spearheaded an effort to raise money and sponsors to build an accessible park. He asked Pennell to consult after meeting her through a mutual friend.

The park, called JT’s Grommet Island Beach Park and Playground for EveryBODY, is named for Josh and his love of surfing: “grommet” is slang for a novice surfer. Also in honor of Josh, the park features a statue of two boys preparing to surf, titled Anticipation.

On the rubberized play surface across from Anticipation is a climbable tableau featuring a surfboard, dolphins and waves. “The wave feature is intended to bring surf to people who can’t get down to the water,” says Stacy Gibson, project designer for WPL Site Design.

The surfboard provides an accessible place for people to pose for pictures while pretending to ride the waves. “You can transfer from a wheelchair onto the surfboard, and when you’re on it, the dolphins seem to be swimming with you,” Gibson says.

Fun for Everyone

Although primarily designed for those in wheelchairs, people of all ages and levels of ability are welcome on the playground, Gibson says. Among the special features are elevated tables with giant bowls of sand on them. “Someone can wheel up to them and play in the sand,” Gibson says.

An artist's rendering of the park shows the elevated platform for accessible ocean viewing suggested by Caroline Pennell. Drawing courtesy of WPL Site Design.

Three paved paths lead down to sitting areas on the beach, so people in wheelchairs can get closer to the water and, if they’re able, help build a sand castle. “Super scoops” are provided, and beach wheelchairs will be available.

Gibson says the games and play features have been placed at heights specific to wheelchairs, with elements pulled out so seated people can easily reach them. One such feature is a “talk tube” through which you can talk and listen to people at various places around the park. Another feature is a “sensory wall” that contains different elements to stimulate the senses, such as large marbles that reflect prisms of light as they turn.

A couple of features are made for accessible exercising. One is an arm cycle, through which people can build up arm strength and agility. “I call it the paddle challenge,” Gibson says, “because it helps surfers — and everyone else — work on their paddling skills.”

While Pennell worked on the park’s play features, the architects worked to make sure the whole place wouldn’t be washed away in the next big storm. “This was a huge concern for us,” Gibson says, “because there is a history of water coming up to that very location.” A concrete foundation wall that extends six feet down into the sand should alleviate that concern. The park also has a collection area to help keep windblown sand off the playground.

Artist and Architect

Caroline Pennell says she was especially pleased to consult on the project because she has dreams of being a landscape architect herself someday. (Either that, or an interior decorator.) She also is an artist who has had two seascape paintings accepted into the MDA art collection, titled Pawley’s Island and Challenges We Don’t Face.”

This photo taken May 7, 2010, shows the park under construction. Photo by Marcus Holman Photography.

“It was a great experience,” she says of her consulting work. “I learned how accepting people can be of people in wheelchairs, and how much someone like me can help others.”

Pennell’s family lives two hours from Virginia Beach, so she won’t have as much chance to use the park as she’d like. But she certainly will be there for the grand opening. The governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, also is scheduled to attend the event on May 22. For more information, visit www.grommetisland.org.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (8 votes)
MDA cannot respond to questions asked in the comments field. For help with questions, contact your local MDA office or clinic or email publications@mdausa.org. See comment policy