Game Plan: All Children’s Playground

Mason Neal, 4, smiles and dances after finishing his play date at the Sassafras All Children’s Playground.

“This is a great place for them to come play. We built this for all children.”

–Dionne Lester, volunteer leader of the Sassafras All Children’s Playground renovation at Laurel Hills Park

by Jessie Ammons

photograph by Ray Black III

“It didn’t start out being a massive project,” says Dionne Lester, the driving force behind the $2.3 million Sassafras All Children’s Playground at
Laurel Hills Park that includes equipment accessible to kids with disabilities. The three-and-a-half-acre site has been in the works for eight years and garnered the support of institutions including the Frankie Lemmon School and Development Center, the City of Raleigh, and the Kiwanis Club, but Lester says it started in the pediatrician’s office waiting room.

There, Lester connected with other parents of children with disabilities. Her daughter, Danielle, was born with both cerebral palsy and a strong will, and Lester remembers recounting how frustrated Danielle would get when “we’d go out to play and there were things she couldn’t do on her own without assistance from me or her dad. Other parents were sharing their frustrations, too.”

Spurred by this community need, Lester discovered Laurel Hills Park, a playground built for all children. Unfortunately, its 1991 construction rendered it outdated. “We know a lot more about the benefits of play now,” Lester says, “and also how to structure it for every developmental need.” By training, Lester is an engineer, and she runs a business services management group. “I’m a project manager,” she explains, which helped her rally the troops to renovate the playground.

The renovation project was welcomed widely. “Raleigh Parks and Recreation was supportive from day one. It snowballed. One conversation led to another led to another. As we assembled the team, we decided to dream big.” They arrived at a massive overhaul with top-of-the-line play equipment and other features, such as a basketball court with height-adjustable hoops. The Frankie Lemmon School and Development Center offered to be the undertaking’s fiscal agent. “It went from, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have this’ to jaw-dropping. People opened their hearts and put in so much time and effort.”

After eight years of planning, fundraising, and building, the Sassafras playground was dedicated in November. Lester says the many years of work were worth it, as indicated by the reception from the adolescent community, including her now-teenage daughter. “My daughter is in a walker and her best friend, Deanna, is in a wheelchair. The affirmation for me was on the day of the grand opening. We’re out there, and I’m in the middle of a conversation with Deanna. She cut me off and said, ‘Yeah, well, Ms. Lester I’ve gotta run. I’ve got to go play,’ and takes off in her wheelchair. Isn’t that fabulous?”