Fundraising begins for Austin Smith Inclusive Playground

This illustration shows phases one and two of the Austin Smith Inclusive Playground project. The Austin Strong Foundation and Parks & Rec are working together to give back to the community, and to create something for children of all ages and abilities.
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     In October, it was announced that Monticello Parks and Recreation was partnering with the Austin Strong Foundation to raise money to build an inclusive playground in the community.

     For over a year, Parks and Rec worked on the project.

     Parks and Rec Director Jacob Oswald said the Foundation, as a 501(c)3 is eligible for more grant opportunities than a government entity like Parks and Rec.

     “We’re coming together as a team,” said Mikinzie Smith with the Foundation. “We wanted to do something permanent in the community to honor Austin.”

     The idea for an inclusive playground is something for all children of all ages, all abilities. It contains components where children of different abilities can play together, ensuring no one gets left out. There is also sensory equipment for children on the autism spectrum, allowing them to play independently alongside others without getting overwhelmed by noise and stimulation of a typical playground.

     The “Austin Smith Inclusive Playground” will be built next to the Aquatic Center. The theme: “Where Everyone Can Be a Superhero.”

     While the Foundation’s mission is to raise money and awareness for childhood cancer research, Smith said they also want to give back to the community that showed their family so much support before and after their son Austin passed away in May 2016.

     “This is something really special we can bring to the community,” Smith said.

     Oswald shared that inclusive playgrounds don’t exist everywhere. The nearest are located in Dubuque and Cedar Rapids.

     “This is something we’re bringing to Jones County and the region,” he added.

     “We believe part of being a successful foundation includes stewardship in our community, facilitating projects that will benefit youth, and aligns with our mission of helping families,” states the project fundraising letter. “We watched, over the course of 16 months, as cancer robbed our son of his physical abilities. It is heartbreaking to hear your son say he wishes he could run again.

     “At the same time, we would have loved the opportunity to take our son to a playground where he could do some of the same things his peers were doing and really feel some freedom. And no matter the cause of a child’s physical limitations, giving them the ability to participate alongside their peers is priceless.

     “This inclusive playground design does just that. Everyone can be a superhero, just as Austin would want!”

     The two-phase project is expected to cost around $500,000. Phase one includes the main playground equipment with unique and interactive sensory pieces. Phase two is the addition of a “tot” play space for much younger children, as well as zip line tracks.

     “We’ve dialed up the accessibility,” Smith said of additions to the original plans. “Personally, things we ran into ourselves that Austin would have loved.”

     The Foundation has already received a $10,000 grant from the Jones County Community Foundation for the playground project.

     “That was our first official grant,” Smith said with pride.

     The Monticello Police Department is also raising money (see adjacent story) for the project. 

     So, how can the general public help?

     You can pledge a certain amount of money over a three-year period of time. For instance, if you pledge a total of $75,000, that’d be $25,000 a year for three years.

     Oswald and Smith noted that times have been tough for many businesses and organizations throughout the pandemic. Allowing people to spread their gift over three years hopefully makes it easier to donate.

     There are also different levels of sponsorships, called “Austin’s Avengers.” These levels are named after popular Avenger superheroes such as Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, and Thor. Each level comes with various ways those sponsors will be acknowledged in terms of recognition on a donor wall and participation at the ribbon-cutting event once the project is complete.

     “Sponsors can be corporations, small businesses, families, groups, organizations, kids, or in memory/honor of a loved one,” the Foundation offered.

     One unique sponsorship level offered is for “Junior Superheroes.” Those under the age of 18 who raise $250 or more will also be recognized.

     “We wanted to encourage youth to get involved in a project that will benefit their community,” Smith said. “It gives them some ownership.”

     There is also the family ambassador program, where families from near and far who have been impacted by childhood cancer or have a child with disabilities can raise money as a group in honor or in memory of that child. These family ambassadors will also be recognized.

     “Every penny helps,” Smith said.

     Donations to the Austin Strong Foundation are tax deductible. They can be sent to P.O. Box 727, Monticello, IA 52310. There is also a playground fund set up at F&M Bank. Please note on your check that the money is to go toward the “inclusive playground.”

     “This will be a destination for people to come to Monticello,” Oswald said of attracting people to the community with a unique project like this.


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