How Fraser residents banded together to create an award-winning park

Twelve years ago, Gary Niedojadlo says Fraser's McKinley Park was "just a field with high weeds."


"There was absolutely no attraction for residents or anybody to this piece of property," says Niedojadlo, president of the adjacent Hanover Grove housing cooperative.


But today, the 15-acre site is a barrier-free park – meaning that its playground and fitness equipment are designed for enjoyment by people with a variety of physical and mental disabilities. The project recently received a major state-level recognition, as the Michigan Municipal League (MML) gave it a Community Excellence Award.


"It is designed from the parking lot throughout the park to be accessible to anyone, being an able-bodied person or a person with a challenge," says Fraser city council member Mike Lesich. "It could be somebody on the autism spectrum, somebody in a wheelchair. Any person could go to this park and enjoy something in the park."


But neither the award nor the park itself would have been possible without 12 years' worth of slow, steady, tenacious effort by numerous Fraser residents who banded together on the project.


The effort started in 2006, when Fraser City Council identified the idea of transforming the site into a barrier-free park. Vania Apps is a founding board member of the nonprofit Fraser First Booster Club, which was established to spearhead the project in 2010. Many of the club's members had to learn how to fundraise for the first time in their lives.


"We thought the big number was $350,000," Apps says. "We thought, 'That's the unreachable number.'"


And yet the project would go on to raise nearly twice that. Apps estimates that about $650,000 has been raised for the park so far. Some of it was through large grants, like a $300,000 Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund award, a $100,000 Michigan Department of Natural Resources Land and Water Conservation Fund grant, and a $42,000 award from the Detroit Auto Dealers Charitable Foundation Fund. But beyond those larger amounts, Apps says the fundraising has all been done "at a very grassroots level."


"No $100-a-plate dinners," she says. "Just bake sales and dinner fundraisers at our local Ram's Horn in Fraser. $100, $500 at a time."


The project benefited from buy-in from numerous Fraser community groups. For instance, the Fraser Paid-On-Call Firefighters raised over $14,000 to purchase a fire truck-shaped playscape and the firefighters installed it themselves last summer. Residents of the neighboring Hanover Grove Cooperative have also been instrumental in the process, raising over $35,000 for the park.


"Everybody loves the park, but it really has brought different elements of our community together to have pride in something that, prior to this, was kind of a place that nobody went to," Lesich says.


Renovation of the park began with the construction of a half-mile walking path encircling the site, as well as a pavilion. Playground equipment has rolled out in phases since then, including a sway fun glider allowing wheelchair users to have a swing-like experience and play panels providing a variety of sensory experiences.


Although the park may appear to be complete, organizers will tell you their work is far from over. They're currently working on raising an additional $300,000 to $350,000 to fund installation of a 13-piece outdoor exercise pad accessible to both wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users, as well as a sensory garden.


"We feel strongly that the more families are together, the more people with challenges are included, the more people learn that having a disability or having a physical or mental challenge doesn't mean you can't still do things," Apps says. "Our hope is that opens the community up to more employment, more understanding, and makes for a much friendlier, more compassionate community, starting with play. You learn a lot playing with somebody."


Niedojadlo says the park has been a "definite plus" to Hanover Grove.


"It's a place everybody can go to feel safe, and from what it was before to what it is now is just totally amazing," he says. "You wouldn't believe the transformation just from having the lawn cut ... To see the smile on the children's faces when they're back there is just indescribable."


Although the park is now a well-known point of pride for Fraser community members, it meant a lot to them to have the project recognized at a broader level by the MML. Fraser mayor Mike Carnagie says it's important for residents to realize the significance of what they've accomplished – notably without expense to city taxpayers.


"When you can bring any kind of good news to a city – especially as important as this, with bringing more people to the city and recognizing that Fraser's a great place to live and work and play – it's always a powerful message to everybody," he says.


Most importantly, the many Fraser residents who've helped make the park a reality can now see on a daily basis the positive effect it has on their neighbors' lives. Apps recalls a conversation she had a few years ago with a park visitor.

"As we were talking, he lifted up his shirt to show me his port for his chemo and he said, 'This place is keeping me alive.' And I'm like, 'Oh my God,'" she says. "It's been a really amazing journey."

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Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere