FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – The calendar still reads "winter," but the hallmarks of spring usually come to life early in southern Kentucky.
Such was the case this week. Tuesday's high temperature in Fort Campbell registered 79 degrees. Wednesday's high was 78. The warmest stretch of 2007 brought daffodils out of their winter hiding, and a sea of songbirds filled the air with a joyous chorus.
On this beautiful day, the air was filled with the high-pitched, youthful laughter of a playground packed with boys and girls.
But this was not your typical playground. It's the first of its kind at a U.S. military installation, geared toward disabled children and parents returning wounded from combat.
Before it's grand opening last August, kids like Shawn Mertens seldom got the chance to experience the fun of a playground, certainly not where he lives, on the grounds of Fort Campbell, one of the Army's largest posts with nearly 30,000 soldiers.
"This is a dream come true," says Shawn's mother, Teresa, as she gently pushed her son on the swing. "He's always happy, always gets a big smile once he gets in the swing. He's a different person out here."
Teresa wanted to make the point that her disabled son is every bit as alive as the other children frolicking through the playground on their own two feet.
Shawn can't walk anymore, and he'll never be able to. His body is limp, his frame contorted in multiple places at the joint. His head is bent to the side, to the point his chin touches his chest. He cannot feed himself. His nourishment comes from a feeding tube.
When he was an infant, Shawn was diagnosed with Schizencephaly, a rare developmental disorder characterized by abnormal clefts in the brain's cerebral hemisphere. The left half of Shawn's brain is missing, and the right half has a hole in it. Teresa Mertens said it was only after birth that she learned of her son's condition, and that he had suffered a stroke while in his mother's womb. On paper, Shawn has suffered a lifetime in eight years. But although he'll grow no bigger than his current stature, Shawn is a giant on this playground. And he's far from alone.
Nationwide, there are about 100 of these unique play stations, called Boundless Playgrounds.
The National Center for Boundless Playgrounds, a Connecticut-based non-profit organization, constructed its first playground about a decade ago. Originally designed to give kids with special needs a place to play, Fort Campbell decided to build one that could also accommodate American soldiers returning from combat, like Staff Sergeant Harold Ord.
"I'm really lucky to be alive, to be able to walk," said Ord, joined by his wife Kristi and his energetic 3-year-old son, Logen.
Ord, 27, who supervised a recovery team for military vehicles blown up by insurgent explosives, nearly lost his life last year when a mortar slammed into a motor pool near Camp Corregidor in Ramadi, Iraq.
Shrapnel shattered Ord's leg and ended any chance of future combat. But he's all about second chances these days, thanks partly to the unique therapy afforded by the Boundless Playground.
"This helped me out a lot with my walking. I was up here every day," he said.
Soaking up this blissful scene is a smartly dressed woman in a business suit. Amy Jaffe Barzach is the executive-director of the National Center for Boundless Playgrounds. This is her brainchild, her baby, her passion.
And perhaps, still, her way of grieving. More than 10 years ago, Barzach lost her 9-month-old son, Jonathan, to spinal muscular atrophy, a muscle-wasting disease.
After the baby's death, Barzach and her husband decided to honor Jonathan by building a universally accessible playground. With a pin of her son affixed to her red blazer, Barzach says Jonathan, who would now be 13 years old, is looking down and smiling.
"When you see these moms and dads with serious war injuries ... first, it breaks your heart," she said. "And then you can see, when they play with their children, they can be mom and dad, just like they used to.
"It's the most inspiring thing. My favorite thing is to sit on a bench, watch the families interact, and know that Boundless Playgrounds was one small part of the healing for these soldiers. I feel really good about that, and I think Jonathan would be proud, too," she continued.
Just like the bouncing kids now surrounding her, Barzach dreams big. She hopes that by 2020, no new playground will be built unless it can be used by everyone, complete with reachable slides, slowly graduated wheelchair-accessible ramps, and soft-padded floors.
"What makes a Boundless Playground special is that everyone can be king or queen of the hill," she said.
Her dream is embraced by Fort Campbell's Exceptional Family Member program, which assists some 3,000 special-needs children and adults on the post, most of them with parents recently deployed to Iraq to fight the War on Terror.
Program Manager Sharon Fields learned about Boundless Playgrounds from a conference she attended four years ago. Believing the playground would be a phenomenal idea to bring back to Fort Campbell, she took part in the funding drive to get the playground to the post.
"Regardless of whether you are an officer or an enlisted individual, whether you have a special need or are typically developing, we all get to engage and play at the same time. So, it's great. It brings us all together," Fields said. "Play is a fundamental right for everyone. But if you don't create that fundamental right, then you've taken something away from people."
The Boundless Playground at Fort Campbell was initiated by Fort Campbell Family Housing (FCFH), which is a military housing partnership created between the Department of Army and a real estate development company, Actus Lend Lease, through the Residential Communities Initiative, established by Congress in 1996 to privatize family housing on Army installations. The $250,000 project was largely funded by contributions from the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain, the Wounded Warrior Project (a private foundation that assists wounded warriors post-combat), and generous donations from FCFH, Actus and private individuals.
Log on to <http://www.ftcampbellfh.com> to learn more about Fort Campbell's Boundless Playground and other initiatives. To learn more about Boundless Playgrounds nationwide, log onto www.boundlessplaygrounds.org
More more information about Shawn Mertens' condition, Schizencephaly, can be found at www.schizkidzbuddies.com