LAFAYETTE, La. — Children with diverse communication needs now have a new way to play thanks to the work of an 11-year-old Girl Scout.

Luna Bowles led the effort to build an augmentative and alternative communication board at Lafayette’s Moncus Park. The new tool allows nonspeaking children and others with complex communication needs to interact and express themselves in a public space. It’s the latest effort to ensure an inclusive and accessible experience at the nonprofit park.

“I think about it this way,” Luna said. “Every kid — no matter what hard times they’re facing like with cancer or if they’re in a wheelchair or they’re blind — should get a chance to have fun on a playground and be a kid.”

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With help from her mom, the fifth grader contacted Moncus Park to see if there were any projects on their wish list that she could help out with to earn a bronze award to move from the junior level to the cadet level of Scouts. The service project needed to have a lasting impact on the community.

Chelsey Roberie, the park services director, mentioned an idea scrawled out years ago on a sticky note that has lived on her desk ever since: a communication board for the park’s playground.

“It is a core value of ours to be as inclusive and accessible as possible,” Roberie said. “Luna said she wanted to do a project in Moncus Park that could be really impactful. I remember that conversation of her thinking of impact.”

The communication board seemed like a perfect fit. It seemed simple enough to execute and would certainly have an impact.

Luna and Lisa Bowles didn’t realize just how much time they would spend on the project until they were well on their way. They started making calls last July and launched headfirst into the project by September. They would need to raise at least $3,000, and it wouldn’t be as simple as asking friends and family members to purchase a few boxes of Thin Mints.

“We’re not a corporation,” Lisa Bowles said. “This project goes to show the power of talking about it and telling people about it and asking and spreading the word until you get the desired result, no matter how long it takes.”

Lisa Bowles, a senior instructor of hospitality management at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, reached out to the school’s Speech, Language and Hearing Center for guidance on the project. Katie Hays, a speech-language pathologist and clinical supervisor of the center, not only served as a consultant but also involved her students in the project’s fundraising efforts.

Luna managed to raise about $3,600 to cover the cost of the board’s construction, installation and a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the project’s completion. About $400 came from a bake sale led by the UL chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association. Another $1,500 came from a Pinhook Foundation grant, which Luna received by presenting her project in a formal letter to the organization. The remaining $1,700 came from individual and business donations, many of which came from speech therapists with private practices.

“What has really been such a joy to me with this particular project was the fact that there was an 11-year-old girl who decided she wanted to do something to provide greater opportunity and accessibility for other kids who live here,” Hays said.

Communication boards are regular features in classrooms and therapeutic environments for those with limited speaking skills. They’re less common in public spaces, although there is a growing movement to include such boards at parks and other common areas.

Moncus Park’s new communication board may be the first of its kind in the state. There are few companies that design such boards for outdoor spaces, and the Moncus Park project was the company’s first Louisiana order.

“The amount of utilization has been the most inspiring feedback,” Roberie said. “Just walking out into the park, seeing the mom with a child on her hip and then using it to communicate, seeing students here on a field trip and everyone using it, even the kids using it to communicate with each other. That’s really been the best feedback. It was needed, and it’s being utilized.”

Although the project took more time and effort than she anticipated, Luna encourages other young people who have a big idea for their own community to take the steps necessary to achieve it.

“Start by talking to your parent or guardian or anyone that has experience in doing something like this because I’m sure a lot of people do,” Luna said. “I went around asking my neighbors if they want to contribute, so you can start in your neighborhood. You can also make the goal public to help find people who are interested.”

Moncus Park isn’t the region’s only play space for those with diverse needs.

A new inclusive and accessible playground recently opened at Parc Sans Souci in downtown Lafayette. The play space features a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round, an in-ground trampoline, rope swings, a climbing structure and a slide.

In 2010, a play area known as Parc Independence opened at Girard Park in Lafayette. The playground, funded by the Kiwanis Club of Lafayette, was designed specifically to accommodate children with physical and developmental disabilities and includes wheelchair-accessible equipment, ramps and swings.

Another inclusive, accessible play space is opening this summer at the Youngsville Sports Complex. That playground will feature a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round, swings and large play structure.

In May, the Broussard Sports Complex at St. Julien Park will become more inclusive and accessible by installing two aquatic chairs at its splash pad, which will allow wheelchair users to enjoy the water play area. An inclusive playground is also planned as part of an expansion project next year at the Broussard park.

As someone who works with young people with diverse needs, Hays said she hopes to see more inclusive and accessible public spaces at parks, festivals and beyond.

“South Louisiana is such a vibrant community, and we really are a very social community. People come here from all over the country and all over the world, and they talk about our hospitality and our festivals and our community spaces. And the hard reality is that it might not necessarily be accessible to people with disabilities,” Hays said.

“As a south Louisiana native, I like to think of the effort to provide greater inclusion really as an extension of the hospitality that our culture already exhibits.”

© 2024 The Advocate
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