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Magical Bridge volunteers make kindness contagious

Kindness Ambassadors program aims to promote values of inclusion, unity

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Nicole Smith, a Magical Bridge Kindness ambassador and a senior at Gunn High School, overlooks the Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto on Jan. 19. Smith helped create the Magic Map, a tactile map of the playground, that will be installed by the park's entrance. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

When Gunn High School senior Nicole Smith joined the Magical Bridge Foundation's Kindness Ambassadors program, she found her calling. After interacting with people with disabilities, Smith said she came to understand the challenges they face.

Now, she's looking toward a career developing assistive technology. It started with another student and a project to create an interactive way-finding map for the Magical Bridge playground at Mitchell Park.

"One of my fellow Kindness Ambassadors who was also working on the Magic Map is blind, and he taught me and a few others how to use a cane to navigate through a space. This experience made me feel a host of emotions: frustration, sympathy, thankfulness, and most of all, I felt so impressed with his perseverance and skill," she said in an email.

"I felt alone, confused and very frustrated when I was using the cane and I messed up and ran into something, or when I didn't know where I was."

Because of the experience, she said, "I am more aware of some of the struggles that my peers face. I also feel a sense of responsibility to continue to promote the values of Magical Bridge and work to make the world a more inclusive place for everyone."

In the future, Smith said, "I want to create technology that makes our world more equitable and accessible for everyone, regardless of the body into which they were born."

It's this kind of values-building that is at the heart of the Magical Bridge Foundation's mission.

The Kindness Ambassadors program brings students and other volunteers together to help with the park's programs and advocacy, which help to further the foundation's goals of uniting people with and without disabilities and people of all generations.

Smith helps out with events at the playground, including the summer Friday Night Concert Series, which includes activities during concerts such as face painting, coloring and braille workshops.

During the school year, she volunteers at fundraisers such as the Walk and Roll Around the Playground event and the Family Photography fundraiser.

"Regardless of the specific event, my role as a Kindness Ambassador is to be a friendly and positive force on the playground, making sure that everyone there is happy and comfortable, and that events are running smoothly," she said.

As for the tactile Magic Map, she said, "It has a digital component that connects playground coordinates with the coordinates of the user's hand. It allows those who are visually impaired to 'feel out' the playground and also provides them with other cues that are triggered based on the location of their hand. This system is designed to help everyone navigate the playground with more ease and awareness," she said.

Nathan Strope, a Palo Alto High School senior, also volunteers at the playground. He has been designated the "Kindness Ambassador of the Year" for his efforts.

Strope said he made a documentary for Magical Bridge called "The Benefits of Play."

A friend suggested that he become a Kindness Ambassador to fulfill a community service requirement in one of his classes. He lives near the playground and saw how it brought a community together.

"I jumped on the opportunity to help out there," he said. "Volunteering at Magical Bridge ... has given me a lot of great memories and hope for the future. It has also given me a lot of confidence. Everybody who I have worked with at Magical Bridge has been extremely supportive toward (me), and I know I will carry those feelings of support with me," he said.

Strope recalled two defining moments while as an ambassador. One time, he watched two children playing with a girl who had cerebral palsy.

"This in itself was already incredible to watch, but then they helped her get into one of the specially designed swings. Her face lit up even more and was in pure delight. The two kids then gently pushed her up and down. It was awesome to watch," he said.

At another event, Strope was volunteering as a stagehand for a band during the Friday Night Concert series.

"I had finished helping them and was kicking back watching the show when a kid came up to me and said: 'Uh, excuse me.'

"I looked towards him. 'Yes?'

"He then bolted off to about 10 feet away where he turned and looked back at me. I grinned and said a little louder 'What's up?' I was trying to show him that I too am still a kid.

"'Do you want to play tag?' he shouted back at me.

"Now I was grinning from ear to ear, I was so excited.

"'Of course. Five-second head start, go!'

"We then played tag for the next 30 minutes or so. We both had a blast," he said.

More information about the Kindness Ambassadors program can be found at magicalbridge.org.

This article is part of a larger story on the Magical Bridge Playground, which can be found here.

Olenka Villarreal and Jill Asher join Weekly journalists Sue Dremann and Linda Taaffe for a lively discussion about the Magical Bridge on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and on our podcast page.

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Comments

21 people like this
Posted by joycerey
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 14, 2020 at 8:52 am

Sue Dreman beautifully captures the essence, importance, history, and need for universal all-abilities recreational spaces that "teach people of all ages to play together with an acceptance of their differences."

On behalf of the Magical Bridge Foundation board of directors, I thank you Sue and PA Weelky for your thorough and accurate story about our Palo Alto flagship playground that redefines what play spaces should be and is inspiring cities, locally and globally, to invest in the universal, intentional design of inter-generational public play spaces for all abilities, and all sizes!!

Joyce Reynolds-Sinclair, Ph.D. Magical Bridge Foundation Board Chair


22 people like this
Posted by Lydia Kou
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 14, 2020 at 10:17 am


Bless your hearts Olenka and Jill.


10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2020 at 11:12 am

I have walked past on two occasions and both times it appeared to be grossly over filled with children. I can see it is popular but when there are so many children there it appears to be very dangerous.

I would love to see more innovative play areas in our parks. I would particularly like to see some designed for older children - the 10 - 14 year olds who would like some more adventure and some more space. The skate board park is taken over by skate boarders who are very adamant that nobody on a mountain bike can use their "territory".

Children of all ages need safe places to play, use their large muscles, and be safe from hurting younger children. It is great to have an all abilities play area, but we do have older children who need to be able to play together without younger children around. Older children are often the forgotten ones when it comes for things to do. Not all of them are involved or want to be involved in organized sports. What they do want is to stretch themselves and act their age.


7 people like this
Posted by D B
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 14, 2020 at 12:37 pm

[Post removed due to inaccurate information.]


16 people like this
Posted by Jill Asher from Magical Bridge
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 14, 2020 at 4:49 pm

I want to express my profound gratitude to Sue Dremann and the entire team and staff at the Palo Alto Weekly for such thoughtful and thorough coverage of Magical Bridge Playground, Magical Bridge Foundation and our important work to give ALL a place to play.

It truly takes a village to build Magical Bridge Playgrounds and there are so many people working on fundraising, design, construction -- and so much more -- and we thank and recognize their efforts to bring more Magical Bridge Playgrounds to life.

I'd like to address a comment from above about that the playground is " grossly over filled with children." The reality is that our playground is enjoyed by children, teens and even adults and seniors. Our biggest challenge is that the playground is used by 25k+ visitors every month -- making it one of the busiest and most loved playgrounds in the country -- which to us, underscores the urgent need that more playgrounds need to get designed and built for everyone. When you design and build for ALL -- everyone actually comes out.

This is what has ignited and fired us up to build more Magical Bridge Playgrounds throughout the Bay Area and worldwide.

We hope you will continue to join us on the journey to give ALL a place to play, regardless of age, ability, disability or size.

We welcome everyone, at every stage of life. Please, come out to Magical Bridge and play!

If you'd like to learn more about our work, visit our website at Web Link

If you are looking to support one of our projects in need -- and pay it forward to a neighboring community, kindly consider making a donation to Magical Bridge Playground coming to Santa Clara's Central Park -- Web Link . (Donation's of $300+ will be recognized with a tile on the donor wall.

With gratitude,
Jill Asher and Team Magical Bridge
jill@magicalbridge.org


12 people like this
Posted by Kris Gery
a resident of another community
on Feb 15, 2020 at 6:23 pm

Mateo's Dream us a park in Concord Ca. That is very similar to this. Im not sure the funds raised whlere quite as much because Palo Alto has a much higher income based community. Mateos dream is a special needs park built many years before this that is wheelchair accessible and fun for able bodied kids as well.


12 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 15, 2020 at 9:39 pm

What a wonderful story. I worked with Jill Asher years ago on a hurricane relief effort, and found her to be one of the most big-hearted, positive-yet-real, energetic, intelligent, driven yet humble people I have ever met. If she works on something, IT WILL HAPPEN.

"What a wonderful story. I worked with Jill Asher years ago on a hurricane relief effort, and found her to be one of the most big-hearted, positive-yet-real, energetic, intelligent, driven yet humble people I have ever met. If she works on something, IT WILL HAPPEN.

I love that they prioritized universal design, so that disabled parents could also participate. I remember years ago when we had to rebuild our home after a natural disaster, we made sure everything was accessible so that a severely disabled friend could visit of his own accord (and others, and grandparents...). Our friend was so happy the first time he came over. Yet that was because our home just wasn't as difficult to access as it had been before -- in the construction, no one but us took the universal design seriously and the architect and contractor kept springing surprises on us, that they couldn't do things they in hindsight clearly never had any intention of doing, or just didn't know how to do properly but promised until it was impossible to come up with alternatives for the same goal.

The university, too, seemed to believe that "accessible" was enough. I remember walking to class with my friend and finding that he could never be on time, or he was frequently even stranded in malfunctioning elevator equipment so far off the beaten path that he might be stuck for hours. The people who made things "accessible" clearly didn't think anyone disabled should be thought of as equal. It made doing things together really hard, just "walking" to class together was next to impossible. When an earthquake happened during class, everyone including his aide just abandoned him and he was left stuck in fear of his life, because the building was "accessible" but only through lots of workarounds that were hard every day of his life and that never considered his safety as important as everyone else's.

"they see playgrounds not as islands, but as the clarion calls in a movement for valuing all members of a community equally."

I love that they prioritized universal design, so that disabled parents could also participate. I remember years ago when we had to rebuild our home after a natural disaster, we made sure everything was accessible so that a severely disabled friend could visit of his own accord (and others, and grandparents...). Our friend was so happy the first time he came over. Yet that was because our home just wasn't as difficult to access as it had been before, it wasn't what we had tried to create -- in the construction, no one but us took the universal design seriously and the architect and contractor kept springing surprises on us, that they couldn't do things they in hindsight clearly never had any intention of doing, or just didn't know how to do properly but promised until it was impossible to come up with alternatives for the same goal. They figured what we got was close enough.

The university there, too, seemed to believe that "accessible" was enough. I remember walking to class with my friend and finding that he could never be on time, it was literally impossible, or he was frequently even stranded in malfunctioning elevator equipment so far off the beaten path that he might be stuck for hours with no way to reach anyone for help. The people who made things "accessible" clearly didn't think anyone disabled should be thought of as equal. It made doing things together with my friend really hard, just "walking" to class together was next to impossible. When an earthquake happened during class, he told me everyone including his aide just abandoned him and he was left stuck in fear of his life, because the building was "accessible" but only through lots of workarounds that were hard every day of his life and that never considered his safety and time as important as everyone else's.

Palo Alto streets and even our school buildings haven't incorporated universal design. We let new buildings be designed with narrow steep stairs and no way for anyone with a mobility problem to even visit. In the middle of this, here we have people with a vision of not just "accessibility" but of absolute loving inclusion. My hat is off to everyone involved. I can't say I'm surprised at the success. We are incredibly lucky to have Jill and Olenka in our community.


12 people like this
Posted by Charles Ng
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 15, 2020 at 10:45 pm

Such a great story and please do more upbeat ones like this, Weekly. Profile people going GOOD, our souls need it.

We are very lucky to have Magical Bridge in OUR city and I hope the city is consulting with these ladies before they ever build another park. My teen kids even love that place. . Our other city playgrounds seem unused while this one, tucked way in back, is getting hundreds of visitors. Kudos to the whole team who is really spreading the kindness we all need!


11 people like this
Posted by Michelle Kraus
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 16, 2020 at 2:35 pm

Thank you Olenka and Jill. You are an inspiration to us all.


11 people like this
Posted by ALB
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 17, 2020 at 1:32 pm

Hats off to the founders of this remarkable concept. It is great that young people from the community are engaged because they will feel useful and needed while making a difference. The best of luck with the establishment of global Magical Bridge Playgrounds. Sue Dremann has written an outstanding piece. Thank you Palo Alto Weekly for featuring this important contribution to the community. May these outstanding women succeed in their endeavor.


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