The sound of Tim Truelson shouting “We did it!” rang throughout Owatonna’s Manthey Park Monday evening as more than 1,000 people celebrated the ribbon cutting of the We All Play Inclusive Playground and Miracle Field.
The city’s Parks and Recreation manager was one of several who spoke at the ceremony, all celebrating the and rejoicing in the community dream that took four years to become a reality. In 2017, local mothers Amanda Gislason and Missy Ahrens, who both have children with Down syndrome, began openly discussing that the Owatonna community was desperately missing an inclusive area that allows children of all abilities to play together.
After many discussions and partnerships throughout the community, and roughly $1 million in donations later, the park is no longer a community’s wish.
While the construction of the project was put on hold last fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ahrens said the pandemic also allowed the entire world to know what it means to feel isolated — something she says people with various disabilities and Down syndrome often feel.
“COVID took a lot of things away from us this last year-and-a-half, but I am grateful for the one thing it hopefully gave all of us here, and that is perspective and understanding,” Ahrens said. “When we use the term isolated we all understand what that means and how horrible it felt during just that short time we experienced it.”
“Thankfully we are starting to get back some of the things we lost last year and I am so grateful that we are able to gather here and celebrate, but my hope is that we don’t return to normal,” she continued. “My hope is that we grow to something so much better ... I’m challenging each and every one here to find ways to build inclusion in your life, in our community and within our school system.”
Gislason also challenged Owatonnans, saying that despite the playground’s completion, she wants them to continue with the work she and Ahrens started.
“Inclusion isn’t just for people with special needs, it is for all of us, but we must help those that are most vulnerable,” Gislason said. “We need to advocate for them, stick up for them and speak up when we see injustices.”
“The city and people of Owatonna have proved that they can unite to make this community a better place for all, so please go forward and include all individuals every day,” she added. “Make the effort … please go forward with the mindset that love and inclusion is what we all seek and teach your children to be kind.”
Gislason’s family recently moved to Wisconsin to be closer to family, but she reinforced the pride she has in the Owatonna community for coming together to make the parks system more inclusive.
Following comments from Parks and Recreation Director Jenna Tuma, Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz, Mohs Contracting President Scott Mohs, Owatonna Foundation President Denny Meillier and Truelson, the ribbon was officially cut and children of all ages, backgrounds and abilities continued to play together.
An inaugural baseball game immediately followed the ceremony, featuring the “buddy system” where each child was paired with an able-bodied adult or individual. Ahrens’ daughter Miley and Gislason’s son Gunnar, the inspiration for the community project, threw the ceremonial first pitches.