Heather Linscheid ‘96 was recently named Citizen of the Year by the Carl Junction Chamber of Commerce in Carl Junction, Missouri, for her work on developing an accessible playground open to the community.
She is an occupational therapist for the Carl Junction R-1 school district and has spent the past 15 years serving students from ages 3 to 21.
“I am driven by helping children to be as independent and successful as possible. Nothing is more rewarding to me than to see a child achieve a goal and to increase their confidence to participate in life activities.”
It is this drive that inspired the Power of Play project to create an accessible playground.
But the idea and vision for the project happened when she was walking past a playground one day and noticed one of her students in his wheelchair not playing. When she approached him and asked why he said he could not get his chair over the mulch to get on any of the equipment.
After speaking to other staff members and trying different things to help him, they realized nothing they were doing could help him play independently on the equipment. The seed had been planted and Linscheid was determined to see something grow.
She began her research on alternative playground equipment and finding options for inclusive play. She reached out to teachers, therapists, nurses and administrators and together they formed the Power of Play Committee.
“We then formed the Champions Committee consisting of leaders in the community who worked with us to make partnerships with local businesses to support the project. So many dedicated their time, talent and generous financial support.”
Once funding was secured, phase one of the project began. Renovations took place on the playground that served children in grades two through six. A new large multi-level ramped structure with a variety of inclusive and accessible features was installed. Children could enjoy a glider that could be rolled onto and then rocked back and forth, molded bucket swings with safety harnesses, a two-seated raft swing, an at-grade inclusive spinner and more.
In addition, musical and interactive panels were installed. The playground includes free-standing musical instruments such as xylophone and drums.
But one of the most important pieces is the surface. The playground now has a poured-in-place rubber, which provides safety and cushion as well as accessibility to children of all abilities. This allows children to easily walk, run or propel a wheelchair over it to any desired location.
“Our goal was to provide a place where all children, and their family members, could play together regardless of ability or physical limitation,” said Linscheid. “The playground is open to the public after school and on weekends, so it also greatly benefits those caregivers who may have mobility limitations as well. Our slogan is, ‘The Power of Play … Play is for Everyone!’”
Phase two of the project will concentrate on the playground serving children in preschool through first grade.
A total of $523,500 was raised for phase one with a large portion, $250,000, of that funding coming from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Land and Water Conservation Fund. Linscheid said phase two may take a bit longer due to donors and grants being shifted toward COVID relief efforts. Despite current economic situations, she said they are already starting to secure some funding for phase two and she and her team will continue to persevere until they have reached their goal.
“Phase one would have been impossible without the community’s support. Many people were creative in their support such as groups of students who designed and sold T-shirts, a teacher who began a read-a-thon — which hundreds of students participated in — to raise funds and a local business hosted an outdoor movie night and concert to raise money for the playground. I was overwhelmed by the generosity and support of so many.”
Linscheid loves her job in occupational therapy. She primarily works with children to improve fine motor coordination skills, visual motor and perception skills and sensory processing skills. Her ultimate goal is to help students to be as independent as possible while engaging in their daily activities.
She never thought that in the midst of doing what she loves, she would be awarded such an honor as Citizen of the Year.
“The Citizen of the Year award was a complete shock to me and incredibly humbling as there were so many individuals who worked to make the project a success,” exclaimed Linscheid. “I truly hope that this inspires others to take a leap of faith when they see someone in need; to have courage to work to make things better.”
She was presented with an engraved metal award at the very location where it all began — the renovated playground.
“It was exciting and special to be surrounded by the project that has resulted in joy for so many. I have (the award) displayed in my home where I see it daily. It provides encouragement and a reminder that although things appear impossible at times, big dreams can come true. You just must have faith and keep moving forward.”
Linscheid said her time at Newman University will be an experience she will always cherish. She continues to stay in touch with friends made as a student and said the training and confidence she gained as a Newman student helped her achieve her career goals.
She said the Power of Play project has been a highlight in both her career and personal life. The way her community came together was inspiring, but she knows that God is behind it all.
“This project has nothing to do with the efforts of an individual but everything to do with a community who is willing to work hard, give selflessly and go above and beyond to show love to all — including those who might otherwise be left out.
“But most of all, this project was led every step of the way by God, who inspired and provided opportunity and guidance. It was an overwhelming faith-building experience to be a part of.”