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We want to play too: accessible playground in Baie-Sainte-Anne

Tucked in behind the Baie-Sainte-Anne Regional School is a brand new, accessible playground - which is available to not just the school's students, but to the whole Baie-Sainte-Anne community.

The Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) for the Miramichi Area, which includes Baie-Sainte-Anne, was completed in 2015 and identified limited recreational activities for children and youth in the community, particularly within outlying areas, as a priority.

Shortly thereafter, Berthe Thériault, then-acting principal of the Baie-Sainte-Anne Regional School, began the process of putting together a group of like-minded people to build a new community playground at the school.

A committee was formed, made up of parents, and Sonia Strangemore, a teacher at Baie-Sainte-Anne Regional School, came on as the school liaison.

"We wanted to bring life to the community, a whole sense of pride, so we wanted to have this as a community park, not just for the school," Sonia said. "We wanted a place to bring people together."

When teachers asked students about what they felt their school needed, they were onboard.

"I thought, why not have a new park?" said Morgan Doucet, a 14-year old student at the school.

The former playground at the school was less than ideal. Equipment was rusted, and nothing was accessible by a wheelchair.

"The wheelchairs couldn't go on anything. We couldn't go and have fun," Morgan said. "All we could do was sit and watch the others."

Morgan lives with Morquio syndrome, a disease that prevents his body from breaking down sugar molecules. Because of this, Morgan uses a wheelchair.

Sonia said the committee drew up a plan for the park, with an estimate of $341,000, so the committee got to work on fundraising.

"For a small community, whenever you fundraise, we did what we could. We did a chase the ace, and finally when the jackpot was finally starting to build, someone won," she said. "So we reached out to the local fishermen's union."

The committee sent a letter to the Maritime Fishermen's Union, along with a video featuring Morgan. The union members met and within 15 minutes, Sonia received word - they voted and were funding the entire project.

Mathieu Doucette, Maritime Fishermen's Union representative for Baie-Sainte-Anne, said the union members present at the meeting voted yes, unanimously to fund the entire playground project.

"We know that kids need to go outside, they needed a playground, especially for kids in wheelchairs," said Mathieu.

"We were crying, we were ecstatic. The kids were ecstatic," Sonia said. "Without the union, we would still be fundraising in 10 years."

In addition to limited recreational activities, Sonia, who has since become the president of the Baie-Sainte-Anne Community Park Committee, said the Baie-Sainte-Anne area has a lot of residents with accessibility issues.

"For a small population, we have a high number of people with special physical needs and accessibility issues," Sonia said. "We kept hearing from our students 'We want everyone to be able to play,' and then we knew we had to do something."

It was important for the playground to be available for the entire community, not just the students during school hours.

"It's going to be a gathering place, for sure. We can envision families coming to the park on the weekends, and using it for community events," Sonia said.

Phase 1 of the new playground was completed in the fall of 2019. This includes accessible swings, and a whole section of play equipment that's accessible. Instead of gravel on the ground, there's sawdust which is easier for wheelchairs to roll over.

"Now, me and my friends can all go play together," Morgan said. "Other people in wheelchairs are able to go too."

Sophie Durelle-Catalano, registered nurse and coordinator of Horizon's Baie-Sainte-Anne Health Centre, said children with mobility issues are benefitting from having the chance to play at an accessible playground.

"No one has to feel left out, everyone can be together and play with their friends," Sophie said. "Once Phase 2 is completed, it will really become a gathering place for the whole community."

Phase 2 of the park will be completed in 2020 and will include an accessible walking track. Once Phase 2 is completed, there will be more opportunities to fundraise and bring the community together to build picnic tables, a gazebo and eventually add some lighting.

Sophie said as part of the Community Advisory Committee that participated in the CHNA process, she is thrilled to see the playground project get off the ground.

"We were really limited in recreational space in our area, and now it's all coming together," she said. "A space for friends and families to gather together is so important."

Perhaps one of the most exciting part of this whole project is the awareness students now have around accessibility in their community.

"I'm part of a group of friends at school who like to do things, we like to get things done," Morgan said. "We have noticed a few things, but we haven't begun any work yet."

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