A New Kind of Play Comes to Palmer

The Alaska Community Foundation (ACF) envisions an Alaska where communities can come together to thrive. The Affiliate Program is one of the core ways that ACF positively impacts towns and cities across Alaska. Affiliate community foundations start with a local volunteer Advisory Board that grows endowments for their area. These endowed funds provide grants to nonprofits, strengthening the region in perpetuity.

Thanks in part to the help of a grant from the Palmer Community Foundation, an Affiliate of The Alaska Community Foundation, the Palmer Family Church unveiled its newest addition to Palmer citizens this past August. The Palmer Family Park on Hemmer Road opened to the public as an inclusive place for children and community members of all ages and abilities to come together and play. It offers many unique features designed specifically around accessibility, inclusivity, and the genuine joy of play. 

The spark for the development of the Palmer Family Park ignited in February of 2022 when the Palmer Family Church hosted Night to Shine, a prom night experience for people with special needs ages 14 and up, a worldwide event sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation.   

The event inspired the Palmer Family Church to expand its services to the special needs community within Mat-Su Valley. The Palmer Family Church decided to redesign the simple playground outside their doors into a new kind of playground. 

In an interview with Pastor Joe Parreira, head of the Palmer Family Church, he said, “At the start of the project, we had about $70,000 to $80,000 budget (based on a grant through Beacon Hill). We found a nice, prepackaged playground kit that we thought might work, but then we started to ask people about accessibility and inclusiveness. We reached out to people in the medical world, parents of children with special needs, and various other professionals with these questions to try to figure out things that would be beneficial to this community. The answers grew the project to just over $1.1 million as we completed it.” With support from many local groups and statewide organizations, including the Palmer Community Foundation, the Palmer Family Church dove in and started development on their new playground. 

Many features on the playground make it accessible and inclusive to community members. The traditional jungle gym was rethought and offers a ramp up and down and passageways wide enough for a wheelchair or walker to go up and move with ease. The we-go-round is flush with the ground, has a slot to lock a wheelchair into, and turns from the inside to eliminate the need for a person to run along the outside and push.

There are multiple communication stations, including a communication board, where nonverbal children can design sentences and convey ideas by pointing to various photos and words, an American Sign Language (ASL) board containing letters and hand signs, and a brail board depicting the braille alphabet. Several stations are designed to develop coordination, mental development, social development, and fine motor skills while building a sense of community, such as “the grocery store” where children can shop, prepare, and share meals. 

By creating these areas, it creates a space where communication can happen, friendships can blossom and grow, and it eliminates the differences between people. 

– Pastor Joe Parreira 

The Palmer Family Church paid attention to the park structures’ design with special focus on the park’s turf. Many parks in Palmer and around Alaska have turf of gravel or woodchips. This rough terrain can make the park inaccessible to children and guardians who need wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, canes, or other forms of mobility assistance. The Palmer Family Park offers a flat yet soft surface around all the structures, allowing a safe area that is still accessible. Finally, the park is gated to protect children prone to running, and there is a pavilion designed for groups and parties to gather. 

Though the park only opened its doors recently, there was never a day this fall when Pastor Joe saw the park empty. He said, “Not too long ago, there was a mom and her children out in the park, and I saw the mom standing at the sign language board going through the hand signs and learning the different letters. To me, my favorite part of the park is seeing the awareness develop that there are people in our community who can only communicate through sign language.”

“I think that’s where the origins of this project came from, seeing the needs of the special needs community and wanting to do more than just a one-time event so that people can come together and erase the separation that occurs with barriers to accessibility.” 

– Pastor Joe Parreira 

The Palmer Family Park will be hosting Night to Shine again in 2024 and invite Palmer Community Foundation and ACF supporters to join them at 6 pm on February 9, 2024, to celebrate this loving community. You can register for Night to Shine at the Palmer Family Church Website.