Natalie Blakemore used to hate playgrounds.
The O’Fallon, Missouri mother dreaded the monkey bars, slides and brightly colored play areas that were no fun for her three-year-old son Zachary.
A rare genetic central nervous system disease makes it difficult for Zachary to walk and speak. The playgrounds were making it tough for him to play with his friends without his mom right by his side.
Blakemore said park barriers and wood chips were another challenge: Zachary found it hard to make moves in his wheelchair or with his assistive walking device.
“We would play on playgrounds here and I’d have to get Zach out of his wheelchair and carry him around,” Blakemore said. “It was really emotionally draining and I’d come up with any excuse to not take them to playground.”
Instead of excuses, Blakemore eventually found a solution — for Zachary, now 12, and thousands of other kids in metro St. Louis.
The Road to Change
Blakemore was skeptical about so-called “accessible playgrounds,” but became a believer on a 2002 trip to Washington, D.C. That’s where she first found a playground with a rubber surface that Zachary could use his wheelchair on, and ramps in the play area so he could use the slides.
For the first time she watched her son interacting with his peers and having fun without her help.
The image of Zachary playing in the park stayed with Natalie, and while she and her husband Todd considered moving to Washington, she had a better idea: she would bring the playground to Zachary.
‘Mom on a Mission’
It took four years — from the first green light in 2003 to the 2007 opening of Zachary’s Playground in Lake Saint Louis — for Blakemore to realize her dream.
Teaming up with Zachary’s speech therapist, Karena Romstad, Blakemore formed Unlimited Play, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to raising money, planning and building accessible playgrounds where children of all abilities can have fun together.
Victoria Schmitt Babb, who joined Unlimited Play in 2004, described Blakemore as the “mom on a mission” who helped start an inclusive playground movement.
“Natalie saw the need and started it from her kitchen table,” Schmitt Babb said.
A Playground For Everyone
Unlimited Play has become a full-time job and passion for Blakemore and Schmitt Babb, who work together from home to raise money, design playgrounds, and spread a message of understanding differences through the universal language of play.
Today the organization has successfully built three parks in Missouri, including Zachary’s Playground in Lake Saint Louis, Shaw Park Tree Top Playground in Clayton and Brendan’s Playground in O’Fallon.
Unlimited Play’s next project is scheduled to be complete this summer in Jaycee Park in St. Charles. Two new projects — one in Breese, Illinois and another in Kansas City — are also in the works.
Blakemore and Schmitt Babb say it’s important for people to understand Unlimited Play playgrounds are not just for children who struggle with disabilities.
“The whole point is for everyone to play together,” Natalie said.
Worth the trip
One mother, Kim Gibson, drives an hour and a half several times a year to bring her 12-year-old daughter Gracie, who has Cerebral Palsy, to Zachary’s Playground.
“It empowers her and makes her feel like she’s not just a child in a wheelchair because she can play with kids who aren’t in wheelchairs,” Gibson added.
She said the playground is well worth the drive when she sees her daughter having fun and interacting with others in a safe place.
“As a parent, that just makes you happy. You want the best for your child and for her to be included and play in a way that brings people together,” she said.
By popular demand
Gibson hopes one day Unlimited Play can help bring a playground closer to home for Gracie. Blakemore and Schmitt Babb have received similar requests from parents across the country.
“There’s so much of a need out there it’s just, how can we help and have the funding base as well?” Blakemore said. “Ideally we’d like to find a large corporate sponsor to help us go national and keep building.”
Blakemore said the greatest message of Unlimited Play is to value all people, no matter their differences, and to take time to slow down and play.
“I can’t do anything to change my son’s disease. It will ultimately take his life no matter what I do, but I’ve found a way to give back,” Blakemore said. “I’ve watched these mothers fighting for their children and in the end it may not matter, but they can give back.”