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These students raised thousands to make their playground wheelchair-friendly

Caroline Yang for NPR
John Buettner (front), a 5th grader at Glen Lake Elementary School in Hopkins, Minn., looks at drawings of playground designs while on a tour at Landscape Structures with his classmates in Delano, Minn.

When he'd go outside at recess, John Buettner would dream of learning the monkey-bars. The fifth-grader uses a wheelchair, so they aren't accessible to him—in fact, most of the playground at Glen Lake Elementary School isn't.

Meanwhile, Betsy Julien would look out from her classroom window as she ate lunch, at the students in their wheelchairs, and thought, "Our playground is not set up for everybody in the school to play and have fun."

Julien's own son is a third-grader at Glen Lake, in the Minneapolis suburb of Hopkins, and he uses a wheelchair, too. "So, this dream and passion of being able to have an accessible piece of equipment has been with me for a long time."

Now, thanks to this teacher and her students, that dream is about to come true in a bigger way than she ever imagined.

Last fall, Julien and a few of her colleagues applied for, and won, a grant for an accessible swing and merry-go-round. The grant fell $35,000 short of the amount the school needed, and so Julien came up with an idea: She asked her combined fifth- and sixth-grade class to help raise the rest.

Her students jumped at the idea, and took it a step further. "We were like, 'Why can't we make the whole playground accessible?' " says sixth-grader Hadley Mangan. "It was $300,000, which is a lot, but we knew we could do it." The next day, they launched a fundraiser online.

Then, the students got to work. They brainstormed ideas on how to raise money: door-knocking, partnering with restaurants, handing out flyers, and even cold-calling local businesses. "It takes a lot of work," says sixth-grader Raqiya Haji, "because you have to write a script and see if they wanted to donate to us."

The students say all that work has been worth it. "If this never happened," Mangan says, the students with disabilities "wouldn't enjoy recess as much, but I think they're going to be so happy because of our idea."

Julien's class reached their $300,000 goal in a matter of weeks, and have increased it twice since then. Now, they aim to raise $1 million so they can completely transform their playground. Anything they raise beyond their goal will go towards accessible equipment at neighboring schools, "because if they see us doing this, they're going to want a playground, too," says Haji.

Last week, Julien and Glen Lake Principal Jeff Radel loaded the students into two school buses for a field trip to tour the manufacturing plant that will make their playground a reality. They got to see how the equipment is built and even got to color in a blueprint of the playground design.

Fifth grader Caleigh Brace says she's most excited about the wheelchair-accessible zipline. Raqiya Haji can't wait to see the merry-go-round, which will be installed this summer along with a swing.

After the field trip, John Buettner says he can hardly believe how quickly an idea turned into reality. "I feel astonished," he says, getting emotional as he talks about the effort his classmates and the entire community have put into this project.

While he may not be able to use the monkey bars, he says the new playground will open up a world of possibilities: "All of this equipment is big enough for my friends and I to play on. I just feel some sense of capability."

Betsy Julien speaks through tears, too, when she reflects on the project and thinks about the playground's transformation when the work is done a year from now.

"As a teacher, and a parent, my heart just swells with pride," she says. "When you have a child who has special needs, you have so many hopes and dreams for their lives. You hope that the world is kind and accepting and inclusive for your child."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.