Community embraces new park concept

Originally published by 10/11’s Pure Nebraska Program

Thanks to collaboration between a local Norfolk pediatric physical therapist and the Norfolk Area Community Foundation Fund, an inclusive park is now a reality.

Emily Afrank enjoys working with patients like 9-year-old Noah Risor at Norfolk’s Embrace Park.  “The concept behind this park is we wanted an inclusive park,” Afrank said.  “That means children of all abilities can play without limitation.”

Afrank says the park is a great place to come for appointments with her patients, but it’s something meant for the entire community.  “The phone calls I’ve gotten from say, grandparents, or adults that may be in a wheelchair, or uncles and aunts that might be in a wheelchair, they say they can now play with their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews because of this park,” Afrank said.  “That was very touching, too, that it didn’t just benefit the kiddos I work with and I see.  It affects everyone.”

The concept of the park was born in 2016, when the mom of one of Afrank’s patients said access to parks in general was difficult. “That broke my heart,” Afrank said.  “I’m not being a good therapist if I can only make a patient successful in a controlled environment.  I took some of my patients out in 2016, and looked at the parks in Norfolk and their limitations.”

At that point, she decided to take matters into her own hands.  “I remember going home and telling my husband, hey, I’m going to build a park,” Afrank said.  “He said, yeah right.  I said, no I’m going to build a park.”  After getting some direction from a friend, she approached the Norfolk Area Community Foundation Fund for help.  “By the time we met with Emily, she had a fully-formed idea,” former fund chairperson Tammy Day said.  “She had been looking at park plans, had been talking to vendors, and had a lot of interested patients and families.” But she needed help when it came to fundraising.  “I had no idea how to fundraise,” Afrank said.  “They were able to teach me how to talk to donors, how to approach donors, and what populations would be interested in donating to something like this.”

It turns out, the guidance from the fund proved to be more valuable than the money it later provided to the project. “I think it wasn’t until the very end when they did the restroom piece that the Norfolk fund actually gave any dollars,” Day said. “The fund’s gift was providing a place for the fundraising to come though, providing guidance on how to do fundraising, how to connect with donors, and how to tell the story.” Afrank says the help didn’t force her to change her vision of the park.  “I’m forever grateful because they accepted my idea as it was, and didn’t try to change it,” she said.

Thanks to the success of Embrace Park, other communities are now looking at ways to create their own version of it.  “I’m so excited to see this throughout the whole state of Nebraska,” Afrank said.

Afrank is hoping more parks will provide opportunities for people of all abilities to play together.  As she continues to bring her patients to Embrace Park, she’s happy to know that a dream can, in fact, become a reality with the right help and support.  “Without the community foundation, there is no way this could have happened,” Afrank said.Located just west of the YMCA, Embrace Park includes a fully accessible splash pad as well.  There is also new parking and two new sports fields adjacent to the park.

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