Hunter’s Place grows
Hunter’s Place, the special-needs friendly playground on the Grace Foundation ranch, will get more and better playground equipment over the next couple of weeks, weather permitting, thanks to generous donors and a family brave enough to talk about the tragic accident that took their son a year ago.
On a stormy Sunday morning in November 2010, 2-year-old Hunter Wilson died tragically in his own driveway. William “Cass” Wilson was positioning his Ford F-150 double cab pickup to get closer to the Family’s Rescue home so that his wife Shawna and two sons, Hunter and CJ, wouldn’t get soaked.
Cass recalls using his backup camera and being grateful for the clear visibility it provided, then pulling slightly forward. The next moment changed the Wilson’s lives forever.
Hunter somehow got in front of the truck, in one of the many blind spots that surround a large vehicle. When Cass pulled forward he felt his right front wheel strike something and soon realized every parent’s worst fear. It was his son.
Rescue workers pronounced Hunter dead at the scene.
In a written account of the accident, Cass Wilson states simply “It was, and is, devastating.”
In lieu of flowers, the family asked for donations to the Grace Foundation, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates abused and abandoned animals and offers youth and adult therapeutic programs.
“People really pulled together for us after the accident,” said Hunter’s mom Shawna Wilson. “It was a pay forward; a way to leave a legacy for Hunter and give something back to community.”
Grace Foundation Director Beth DeCaprio helped the Wilsons decide to put their donation toward an “inclusive” playground in their son’s name.
“Hunter wasn’t a special needs child, but he loved horses and playgrounds, so this just made sense,” said Shawna.
Thanks to the Wilson family’s jump-start sponsorship and a host of other donors, “Hunter’s Place” was dedicated on May 11 as part of a “safety day” that included pony rides, a petting zoo, a poker ride and safety demonstrations from the CHP and local police and fire departments.
The Wilsons liked the idea of tying a playground named for their son to a safety event that raises awareness about rollover accidents with children, “in hopes that other families might not have to go through what we’ve been through,” said Shawna Wilson.
According to kidsandcars.org, a national child automotive safety organization, the frequency of “frontover” fatalities involving a child increased tenfold between 2001 and 2009 as SUVs with large blind spots became more popular. Backovers also increased dramatically in the mid 2000s, but have declined since 2007, as backup cameras have become more common.
Wilson and DeCaprio are already planning next year’s “Hunter’s Day,” which will encompass the entire Mother’s Day weekend. The May 12, 2012, event will include a free picnic to honor families of first responders and parents who have lost a child.
Shawna Wilson will host a Mother’s Day brunch at the ranch the following day, May 13, for parents who’ve lost a child. “It’s a way to take what might be the worst day of the year and turn it into a day of healing.
“For us that child is still alive in our hearts,” she added. “It helps us to talk to someone else who’s been through it.”
Bought at full retail, phase one of the playground, which targets children age 2 through 5 and is already seeing heavy use from a much broader age range, would cost roughly $150,000. But DeCaprio never pays full price and got it built for a fraction of that.
Local construction firms Roebbelen and Veerkamp, both long-time friends of the Grace Foundation, made quick work of the grading and concrete. Home Depot donated and installed a no-climb fence. Intel and Micron stepped up with cash and some very overqualified volunteer labor.
DeCaprio’s cousin Steve Strachen owns Central Coast Playgrounds, located south of Santa Maria. He donated playground equipment for both phases of playground.
Phase two, slated for installation over the next few weeks, targets 5- to 12-year-olds, and will include a slide, a bridge and related climbing and crawling apparatus.
Grace Foundation Program Director Julie McBride, a marriage and family therapist by trade, coordinates all of the therapeutic, recreation and education programs at the ranch. She’s also project managing playground construction.
She hopes to outfit the park with “sensory panels” located along planned pathways and a “Sway Fun” therapeutic swing, a totally inclusive glider that allows a child in a wheelchair to be a part of the fun without leaving their chair.
A separate fundraising effort is planned for the inclusive play equipment.
“Hunter’s Place fills a need in the community,” McBride said. “Because the entire park is enclosed in non-climb fencing, parents can bring their child in here and relax a little.”
Most kids with disabilities play on regular play equipment just fine, she added, but the setting isn’t always appropriate for them. “Other kids might not accept them, but here everyone knows it’s a special place.”
Families with autistic children have a particularly difficult time in public parks, McBride said, explaining, “They tend to run, and in normal parks they can get out and into traffic very quickly, but not here.”
Hunter’s Place will also be a useful adjunct to the therapy programs offered at the ranch, as well as a safe and fun amenity for the busloads of school children that visit the ranch each month.
Real estate broker Terri Chapman of the Chapman Real Estate Group and Folsom Lake Realty began holding her client appreciation party at the ranch in 2007 and, she said, “It’s gotten bigger and better every year.”
She turned the annual fete into a fundraiser for the ranch with a big barbecue, live music, a pumpkin carving contest, pony rides and ranch tours.
This year’s party, cosponsored by Allstate Insurance, was held in October. It raised more than $5,000 for Hunter’s Place phase two.
Chapman was at the ranch last week to drop off a check, and to meet Shawna Wilson.
“You can’t come out here and not get caught up wanting to help,” Chapman said. “I have clients bringing bags of cat and dog food, even bales of hay. Several have volunteered.”
McBride confirmed that her clients have also adopted Grace Foundation horses, goats and even a cat.
Looking around the park named for her son and partially funded by her new friend Chapman, Shawna Wilson said, “Hunter would love this.”
She gave Chapman a thank-you hug and reflected on her loss. “We’ll never get over it. All we can do is try to get through it. People like you help us heal.”