Layla Harrelson will soon have a place to play alongside her brother and sister with the upcoming groundbreaking on a new all-inclusive, sensory playground at Billy Gardner Recreation Complex in Conway.
Nine-year-old Layla has Pitt Hopkins syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that renders her non-verbal, and she is on the autism spectrum. Most children with Pitt Hopkins have global developmental delays, but her father, Horry County Police Department Capt. Johnny Harrelson, said she has a very happy disposition.
“We are super excited for this,” Harrelson said.
The playground has been in the works for Conway for a few years now, according to Conway Parks and Recreation aquatics coordinator June Wood.
When Savannah’s Playground opened in Carolina Forest, Wood said they noticed how many Conway residents flocked to it. Conway’s city officials put together a committee to assure that there was community involvement in every step of the playground’s development.
“We obviously had a huge need here that wasn’t being met,” Wood said.
Conway City Council recently approved working with Kompan, Inc., to design and build the playground for $197,293. They hope to begin building by the end of June, next to the existing playground and shelter structure by the Conway Recreation Center on Mill Pond Road.
“[The playground] being at this facility is so great…to be able to put it into a place that is already so popular, with the shelter…and it’s not going to flood,” Wood said.
The park will include a softer turf-base, and according to the project’s request for proposals (RFP), the playground will also include the following pieces: shade structures; accessible slides; sensory pieces; musical pieces; swings (platform, harness, supportive and typical); rockers; a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round; and a track slider.
Safety netting will also be installed to protect the playground and its participants from batted baseballs and softballs from the nearby playing field.
Harrelson said when his family lived in Aynor, they approached the town council there and implored them to possibly change out some of the equipment in the Aynor Town Park.
“That never got a lot of traction,” Harrelson said. “When her mom and I…moved to Conway, we found out that project was in the works for Conway, and it was kind of heaven-sent.”
Savannah’s park is awesome, and we’ve taken Layla there…but to be involved and play with her brother and sister is huge, where she isn’t just sitting off to the side in her wheelchair,” Harrelson said.
While Layla does like to watch other kids play, her mother April McHugh said that it’s not the same as being able to play with her siblings, 11-year-old Maggie, and 7-year-old Brady.
“It means she can be included in every day play,” McHugh said. “Some places will just put one [wheelchair-accessible] swing in, but not think about the ground, or how they are going to get there…To have [a playground] that is completely thought out, that means a lot.”
Conway Cares, the 501c3 nonprofit started after Hurricane Florence by Conway residents Justin Jordan, Joe Mogus and Stephen Anderson, will have a hand in the future of the playground as well.
Jordan, who served on the city council’s committee to help develop the playground and works in the medical equipment field, said he has worked with children with disabilities for a long time.
“It’s [the playground] is something I’ve wanted to see for some time now,” Jordan said.
Jordan said that Conway Cares has set up a way for the public to give donations toward future phases of the inclusive playground, in hopes to one day have one on the same scale as Savannah’s.
The trio began Conway Cares when they saw numerous needs after the hurricane devastated the area this past September, and went on to help some of those families for Christmas, and recently helped an area man get into a new residence after his own was damaged.
“It was never our intent for [Conway Cares] to turn into what it did, but obviously it’s great,” Jordan said.
Anyone who wants to donate toward future phases of Conway’s inclusive playground can do so through the Conway Cares Facebook page or its website at www.conwaycares.net