Each year, the Leadership Tahlequah class takes on a project to benefit the community, and this year’s class has decided to make Kaufman Park a haven for children with disabilities. Leadership Tahlequah operates under the auspices of Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce. Participants learn about various aspects of the community so they can become leaders – if they’re not already – after they graduate from the 10-month program. Last year’s class helped support local Special Olympics team, The Outlaws.
Bree Long, a member of the current Leadership Tahlequah class, said the park is a partnership project with the city, the has been set up for the project, and Long said class members are soliciting donations and doing a series of fundraisers. The group’s estimate and goal for fundraising is $120,000.
Long said Kaufman Park was selected after a discussion with several local residents.
“There was a meeting with some mothers of special needs youth, Mayor [Jason] Nichols, the leadership class and some other community stake holders who work with special needs kids,” Long said. “Some of the mothers with kids who have sensory impairments requested Kaufman Park because there is less traffic, less noise, and obviously, the plan to upgrade the park would include accessibility and the appropriate ground-covering materials to make it accessible.”
Long said one of the fundraisers will be a duck race at the upcoming Red Fern Festival, on Saturday, April 30, at 4 p.m. and Sunday, May 1 at 2 p.m. Ducks will be available for purchase for $5 or five for $20, and those interested may contact either Cindy Chanslor, 918-457-8636, or Kate Buster, 918-313-9051. Ducks and T-shirts will be on sale at the Leadership Tahlequah booth in Norris Park.
Long said the group is requesting that the Kiwanis Club donate to the project.
“Our leadership program has four Kiwanians, so we’ve reached out to the Kiwanis for aid, and we have plans to reach out to other civic clubs and national grant providers within and outside the community,” Long said. “There are funds coming in outside the GoFundMe page that won’t show up there because we’re applying for grants from corporations and foundations. The Cherokee Nation has already donated $10,000, and that won’t go through GoFundMe because you have to pay a commission on it.”
Long said the project is the brainchild of classmate and Shriner Russell Sain. He said his class graduates in June, and the group will be busy trying to raise the money before then. He said the initial idea for making the park was brought to the mayor about three years ago, but funding wasn’t available.
“When the group was looking for a project, I met with the mayor and asked him what was on his radar, and he mentioned the playground,” Sain said. “I’m a Shriner also, and these will be kids who have been helped through the Shriners Hospital, so the project really resonated with me.”
When Sain took the idea to the class, members unanimously approved.
“We did a lot of investigation, and we had a stake holders’ meeting where we had the mayor, the park department, parents of specials needs kids, the special needs coordinator from Tahlequah Public Schools and a couple playground vendors,” Sain said. “We found there are 640 specials needs kids within the TPS. Part of our plan is to have sensory panels for children with specific disabilities.”
Sain said the closest fully-inclusive playground for special needs kids is in Oklahoma City, so the need was already present. He said the park will be good not only for the kids, but for the city, too.
“For the special needs kids, since it’s their park, the other kids treat them like they’re rock stars because they are kind of like guests there,” Sain said. “The other kids will seek out those special needs kids to play on that specific equipment with them. It’ll help raise the social consciousness of the town; it’ll help as a recruitment tool and as a tourism function. If kids in the area have special needs, people will come visit it, so it’ll be an economic development tool, too.”
Mayor Jason Nichols said the city has had several people inquire about the addition to existing playgrounds and that after years of looking for funding, it was decided that it would be best to build one central facility to have an accessible playground.
“The leadership classes are always looking for projects they want to do or contribute to and when I told [Sain] we were trying to do this particular project, he immediately jumped on it,” Nichols said. “When [Sain] took it back to the group, apparently they thought it fit the bill and it wouldn’t end up being the project it’s going to be without leadership class 19.”
Nichols said the city will be in charge of developing the facility and though the amount will be unknown until the budgeting process takes place, the city will be able to make a significant contribution to the construction costs.
“It’s going to be a great thing for Tahlequah,” Nichols said. “These facilities aren’t particularly common so it’ll draw people from the surrounding area and not just Cherokee County. People have pointed out there was a need in the community and we knew if we didn’t take action to meet that need, it could have been a long time before it was addressed.”
Calls for comment to Northeastern Health System administration and hospital foundation board members were not returned by press time.