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Community Outpouring Helps Realize Special ‘Big Dreams’ Park

Sonora, CA — A five-year long dream-turned-journey dedicated to creating a community park geared for special needs kids and families appears ready to finally come true.

Sarah Garcia, founder/president of the local nonprofit Big Dreams Universally Accessible Parks and Playgrounds, says she received word yesterday of sizable incoming donations that will push the group’s fundraising efforts over the top.

“We raised over $300,000 to get this park funded and it has been quite an adventure,” admits Garcia, a 14 year veteran of Tuolumne County Parks and Rec who this past summer became the director of Tuolumne’s First 5 program. She calls the experience an “amazing” one, meeting and building relationships across the county. She readily admits the process has taken quite a bit longer than she had expected and is glad to have been blissfully unaware at the onset back when the idea was inspired by her daughter Ruby, now eight years old, when she was a special needs toddler.

In hindsight, Garcia says, “I think I just did not realize when we first started how difficult it would be to get a project like this off the ground. But I have spoken to many different project coordinators all around the state who are working on projects like this — and for some it has taken up to ten years to get their projects going.” As part of a community partnership with the county, the park will be built at the site of a present park that needs to be replaced, which is located next to the Tuolumne Memorial Hall. As reported here, the organization still needed over $100,000 going into its annual “Starry Night Dinner In White” fundraiser, which was held last month at Jamestown’s Hurst Ranch, drawing $36,000 more into the coffers.

Project Receives $150,000-plus Windfall

Completely thrilled and still a bit dazed, Garcia recounts that the project raised $150,000 just in the past month, specifically through the efforts of Sonora Area Foundation. “They had a private donor come forward with an anonymous $50,000 matching funds donation…then Sonora Area Foundation just granted us $40,000 yesterday — and we did get a match for the $50,000 in part from that donation from the Sonora Area Foundation,” she explains. Adding to that are checks just received from Chicken Ranch Casino and the local Kiwanis Club, respectively for $10,000 and $3,000. Topping all that off she notes, “Sonora Sunrise Rotary has chosen us to be the beneficiary of their 2018 celebrity serving dinner at Black Oak Casino this coming April 13th!” She guesses that event has the potential to add at least another $15,000 towards funding the park.

While it took nearly five years of mostly small-donation gifts trickling in to raise the first $150,000, the balance of funding has piled in within the space of about a month. AS Garcia surmises, “So it just was kind of this big domino effect — once these different [larger] donors saw that we were getting really close — and how prepared we were.” With blueprints just needing minor modifications, the park design done — and no need for an EIR report since the location is already a park — she says the next steps will include beginning the paperwork process with the county and pulling permits.

“We are shooting for the spring to break ground and shortly after build it fairly quickly,” Garcia outlines, thankfully acknowledging thousands of dollars in construction materials donations from Blue Mountain Minerals along with pledges of labor and services assistance from various sources. While the concrete work might take a couple of weeks, plus drainage, irrigation and plumbing for the new drinking fountains, installing the actual playground equipment should only take a couple of days, making it probable that the new park will be able to open before the end of the school year.

By design the entire playground and park — barring the landscaping — will be wheelchair accessible with solid surfaces throughout that include “squishy rubber” under the playground equipment. Garcia, whose group spent significant time learning through the project’s development of various special needs, is quick to point out, “[The surfacing] is just a small portion of how this park is accessible — it is not just about wheelchairs and walkers..it is also for kids with vision impairments…autism with specific needs in settings like this…to make sure that the entire park is for people with different abilities.”

‘Big Dreams’ Ready To Help Beget More

Choking up a bit, Garcia confides the whole endeavor started as something that she envisioned for her daughter and some of her friends that evolved into a much bigger thing. “It is about bringing people together and creating a place where everybody can come together, play and be equals,” she emphasizes. She is proud to add that word has spread about the project to the point that people from across the country are contacting the nonprofit, asking for advice on how to get something like it built in their communities. “So it is really amazing…it is great to help kind of direct them on who they should go to — to get processes started,” she states.

Once the park in Tuolumne is done, Garcia wants to let people know that the Big Dreams Playgrounds board and supporters, many who have been there from the beginning, are committed to continuing their work. “We will have a fund open at Sonora Area Foundation that other communities in Tuolumne County can apply to — to have their local park made more accessible,” Garcia says happily.

Along with continuing with its annual fundraiser, she promises, “We will be applying for funds all over the place to keep a fund open at Sonora Area Foundation — where people from all over can write proposals to us and then we can help assist them in getting their local park made more accessible for their kids and their families.” To read more about her group’s efforts, click here. To view design images of the Tuolumne park, click the image box slideshow link.