We can all attest to the power and importance of friendship, but perhaps American philosopher, psychologist, and professor William James put it best when he said, “Wherever you are, it is your own friends who make your world.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy to see friendship getting due credit. Yet, in the world where I live and work, I see us living out a strange reversal of James’ words. Whether we realize it or not, far too many kids in Kansas City and across the country never get a real chance to build friendships that make their worlds. And that’s because we—quite literally—build worlds that limit their chances to make friends.
Picture your favorite childhood playground. For many of us, these were the places where some of our earliest friendships formed. Maybe you soared high on swings, became kings and queens of your own castles, or found seemingly boundless places to both hide and seek. Now picture showing up to that same playground using a wheelchair or walker and having to turn away at the gate because the play structures could not accommodate you. On the off chance that you pictured a playground whose structures were already designed with the accessibility you needed in mind, what was the ground like? Was it covered in the playground mulch we still find at too many playgrounds today? If so, even the most accessible equipment in the world would be off limits to you for fear of that mulch spinning in and ruining your wheelchair motor or spokes. Outside of wheelchairs, this kind of surfacing also impedes walker wheels, IV poles, and other mobility devices.
If we begin to view disability as simply a natural part of human diversity, it’s easy to see why designing inaccessible facilities limits the pool of potential friends available to all kids. More importantly, it shuts off invaluable opportunities for kids to learn lasting life lessons from each other about acceptance, compassion, patience, and difference. In short, what starts on the playground carries over to homes, classrooms, and eventually the workplace in our ultimate quest to better our world by making it a more inclusive place for all.
Much of our work at Variety KC over the past two years has gone into erecting four fully accessible playgrounds across the Kansas City Metro Area. Additionally, we just helped the Kansas City Zoo become the first zoo in the nation to launch a fully inclusive play area. This comes on top of continuing to create once in a lifetime experiences for our Variety kids with the Kansas City Royals, Chiefs, Mavericks, and other amazing community partners who believe in the unique potentials of all Kansas City kids. But that’s not all. Apart from creating accessible environments throughout our great city to serve its one in four families affected by special needs, we also provide individual kids and families with key adaptive equipment like wheelchairs, walkers, communication devices, and vehicle ramps—the burdensome costs of which are most often not covered by insurance.
I’m Variety KC’s only staff member, so we do all of this thanks to the time, talents, and generosity of Kansas Citians just like you. I’ve talked today about a whole host of projects and devices that are all uniquely tangible, but the mission that truly drives us goes far deeper. It’s simple but—at the same time—incredibly hard to quantify. We set out to change hearts by showing ours everyday. And however that looks for you, we’d love for you to join us!