Nova Scotia

'It's really emotional for me': Mother of son with autism spearheads $500K playpark

Project began with letter to Region of Queens Municipality mayor during 2016 municipal election

Posted: July 31, 2022
Last Updated: July 31, 2022

Liverpool resident Debbie Wamboldt, right, is shown with her son, Angus. (Debbie Wamboldt)

It seemed nearly impossible for a rural community in Nova Scotia to collect almost half a million dollars to build a playpark for children and adults of all abilities. But it did. 

The Queens universally designed playpark is coming to fruition in Liverpool. The ground is broken and the parts have been ordered, but COVID delayed the intended spring opening. 

"It's really emotional for me," said Debbie Wamboldt, the mother who was the driving force behind the project. 

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The park is located near the Queens Place Emera Centre.

Expected to be completed in a few months, the park will be fenced for the safety of those who might run off. It will have a wheelchair-accessible splash pad, wheelchair-accessible swings and a merry-go-round.

The park was scheduled to be completed earlier this year but equipment was delayed by the pandemic. (Facebook)
A rendering of the playpark. (Facebook)

It has bright colours and ramps that access all the equipment. It even has a quiet pod for anyone looking for a place to get away from noise. 

It all started with a letter to the Region of Queens Municipality mayor during a municipal election in 2016.

Wamboldt was concerned that no candidate was talking about accessibility.

Brayden and Brodie Howard helped raise $800 through a bottle drive. Their donation was matched by a private donor. (Facebook)
A local convenience store made a donation. (Facebook)

Her then seven-year-old son, Angus, who has autism, had never been able to use a playground. Angus would get overstimulated by sights and sounds that could cause him to run toward traffic or waterways. 

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Wamboldt rallied the parents of children with autism behind her. She sent the letter to David Dagley, explaining the barriers those with special needs face at a regular playground.

"He contacted me and he said your letter really struck a nerve with me," Wamboldt said.

The community bought thousands of cookies to support the project. (Facebook)

So it began. Wamboldt and the determined parents created the playpark project. The goal was not just to build a playground for children with autism but for children of all ages and abilities.

Wamboldt got Autism Nova Scotia behind her and the public responded.

'People were just throwing money at it'

Wamboldt said the project raised over $200,000 at the community level. It then collected money from all three levels of government and several large organizations. 

"The community buy-in is really what swayed a lot of the bigger sponsors," said Johnston.

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A girl donated her birthday money and Christmas money two years in a row. A church group went canvassing.

There were bake sales, lemonade stands and costume parties. A private sponsor matched every donation at one point and the project even received memorial contributions. A Tim Hortons cookie drive ran out of cookies several times.

A young girl wrote a letter to Santa asking for money for the playpark. She later donated it to the cause. (Facebook)

 

"People were just throwing money at it … and this is supposed to be a low-income county," said Elise Johnston, the accessibility co-ordinator for the region. 

The goal was $350,000, but more than $450,000 was raised, Johnston said.

Autism Nova Scotia handed the funds to the municipality early this year.

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"When a municipality drives a project, then everyone goes, huh? They got money? They don't need it. It was the spirit and the passion from the local drivers of the project that really, really spearheaded this," said Mayor Darlene Norman.

Example for other municipalities

Wamboldt said the project could be an example for other communities. 

She said political discussions about accessibility often leave autism out. In Canada, one in 66 youth is diagnosed with autism. Wamboldt says she is on the spectrum.  

Autism Nova Scotia says it is unaware of any parks or playgrounds specifically for children with autism in the province, but there are inclusive playgrounds.

There is an inclusive park children with autism can use at Westmount Elementary School in Halifax.

The Strait Regional Centre for Education has sensory pieces and accessible structures on school playground areas for children with autism and other abilities. 

"Autism has very big impacts on the community and really needs to be looked at when it comes to accessibility," said Wamboldt. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anam Khan
Reporter

Anam Khan is a CBC News reporter based in Halifax. She can be reached at anam.khan@cbc.ca