Group launches accessible playground push

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Starla Hilliard-Barnes wasn’t able to play with her young daughter on a playground for years until a trip to Ohio changed that.

She said it was the most striking experience since her daughter’s birth to be face-to-face with her on the jungle gym instead of watching from the side.

They played in Stow, Ohio, at a playground designed to accommodate wheelchairs. Hilliard Barnes has used a wheelchair after recovering from a motorcycle accident in 2009, when a pickup truck lunged through a red light and hit her.

Today, she knows she isn’t the only one who has had to sit out of a playground visit.

“That’s such an emotional thing to see, because here in Montana, you see a lot of people left on the sidelines at the playground,” Hillliard-Barnes said.

A campaign to bring an accessible playground is underway in Kalispell. It’s being spearheaded by Moving Forward, an organization founded by Hilliard-Barnes that advocates for adaptive sports.

Moving Forward hosts sled hockey, water skiing, ziplining and other activities, but the inclusive playground project has become the organization’s central endeavor.

“That’s the largest program,” said Matt Sather, an adaptive sports director for Moving Forward.

An inclusive playground looks just like a regular playground, but small changes make it more accessible. Hilliard-Barnes said that minor features such as wood chips or rocks can create barriers for some park-goers.

A lot of the focus is on giving children a place to play, but Hilliard-Barnes’ experience shows that it’s not just for them. She said that it can allow parents or grandparents to interact as well.

The city of Kalispell is backing the idea. Moving Forward has held talks with officials about inclusive playgrounds and various parks have been surveyed as potential sites.

“Once meeting the board and looking at our community and talking to others, you start to realize that a sector of our community was missing,” Kalispell Parks and Recreation Director Chad Fincher said.

He said that there’s certainly space within the 400 acres of Kalispell parks. They’re looking for a spot that already has some amenities, such as bathrooms and common areas, so that the inclusive playground can be a fully finished facility with fewer up-front costs.

It can be a “show piece,” Fincher said.

“We didn’t want to stick it away and do a corner of a park,” he said.

The survey process in the parks department is ongoing. The main hurdle is money.

While the city is backing the idea, the money for the playground will need to be secured privately.

“The city actually doesn’t have the finances to do it, so Moving Forward will have to raise the whole $500,000 to build a playground,” Hilliard-Barnes said.

A nearby model for Hilliard-Barnes’ vision lies in Missoula. The city recently completed a 30,000 square-foot inclusive facility, dubbed that All-Abilities Playground Project. It was funded through public and private channels and cost more than $500,000.

Hilliard-Barnes said that she has traveled to playgrounds throughout the Flathead Valley, frustrated that none of them have that accessibility. And since that trip to Ohio, she and her husband, Shannon, have made it their goal to make it happen locally.

“No child or adult should ever be left out,” she said. “We need to break down the barriers.”

Reporter Matt Hudson can be reached at 758-4459 or by email at

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