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updated: 10/18/2011 4:26 PM

Wheaton parks win national essay contest for sensory playground

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Supporters of a sensory playground to be built in Wheaton certainly did not need more proof the idea was a good one.

But they say winning a national essay contest -- and along with it, $150,000 in equipment and services -- confirms the project could become a unique attraction for the area.

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In a contest that generated more than 250 entries from across the U.S., judges picked an essay submitted by Wheaton Park District and Cindy Keck of the Kiwanis Club of Wheaton to receive the services.

Landscape Structures, a playground equipment specialist based in Delano, Minn., and Shane's Inspiration, a Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based not-for-profit, sponsored the contest. Keck said it shows the playground idea has the backing of professionals who specialize in the industry, a potential selling point when fundraising for the estimated $2 million project kicks into high gear.

"This particular company recognized that our idea was different and innovative and that it might be able to be a model for other people," she said. "It will make a big difference when we go out to people who may not have a background in special needs. This leader in the industry agreed that this is valuable."

Some of those leaders will be on hand for two days to survey the future site and attend a celebration of the winning essay at 6 p.m. Wednesday at city hall, 303 W. Wesley St. The presentation precedes the Wheaton Park District's regular board meeting.

In the winning essay, Keck and the park district's director of planning, Rob Sperl, highlighted the benefits of the project, which would provide a safe and controlled environment for people with sensory disabilities.

"We saw the need for a multi-community effort to build a world-class facility, and we are ready and willing to lead in making it a reality," the essay read.

The competition was broken down into five regions across the U.S. and Canada and the Top 10 of each region were sent forward to a final round of judging.

A winner came out of each region and Wheaton was chosen as the grand prize winner.

Jane Jenewein, Landscape's strategic alliances manager, said the contest aims to celebrate communities that have focused on inclusive playgrounds.

"The objective was to recognize communities that are doing amazing things around inclusive playgrounds and showing a different level of commitment to the long-term impact of the community," she said. "Everybody can put in a playground that's accessible but how can we recognize those that are doing extraordinary things?"

Sperl said the prize, which includes $100,000 in playground equipment from Landscape and $50,000 in design work from Shane's Inspiration, would help promote the playground and reach the goal of paying for it entirely through grants and private donations.

"This is a big one," he said. "We are hoping this is going to be a big spur for other people to get involved in the project."

The park district has partnered with several agencies to pursue the project, which will be built on property recently leased from the DuPage County Forest Preserve District on the northeast corner of Lucent Lane and Naperville Road in Wheaton. Western DuPage Special Recreation Association also jumped on board early, with Executive Director Sandy Gbur saying the project was "easy to say 'yes' to."

To donate to the project, visit dupagesensoryplay.org.

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