Civic Warriors

Building Playgrounds for Everybody With Build Jake’s Place

Civic Warriors Episode 42 With Build Jake’s Place

Build Jake’s Place is a not-for-profit organization that helps build inclusive playgrounds where children in wheelchairs and other assistive devices can play along side others with ease. We speak with the Executive Director, Arthur Aston, about how his own story inspired him to become involved in this organization. He shares the importance of these playgrounds, what the current landscape of inclusive playgrounds looks like in New Jersey and what they are doing to build more. Listen to learn how Build Jake’s Place spreads awareness through education and advocacy efforts, the costs associated with building an inclusive playground, and how they raise funds to build these playgrounds!

“It’s the greatest joy of my life, working with them because what we do there is we help build inclusive play experiences for everybody of every ability.”

Transcript:

This podcast was transcribed through a third-party application. Please disregard any misrepresentations.

Brad Caruso:

Welcome to Civic Warriors, brought to you by Withum. On this podcast we bring the converation to you sharing engaging stories that motivate and build consensus in the nonprofit community. This podcast is about the innovators, the leaders on the frontline of adversity, guiding lights in the nonprofit industry affecting change. And through their stories, we can all join forces to become civic warriors. Hey, warriors. Welcome to today’s episode of Civic Warriors. Brought to you by, Withum. I’m your host, Brad Caruso, leader of Withum’s not-for-profit practice. You know, it takes a significant amount of courage to make real change in this world. It also takes funding, dedicated individuals’ personal connection to a cause and a drive to make the world a better place. On today’s episode, we have Arthur Aston, executive director of Builds Jake’s Place, which is a 501c3 nonprofit located in Camden County, New Jersey. Arthur is driving to make real change in this world, and I am so excited to have you as a guest and share your story today, Arthur. It’s a pleasure and, we look forward to, it’s a welcome to the show.

Arthur Aston:

Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here with you today.

Brad Caruso:

So I’d love to start off, I think it’s a great connection here to the cause. Maybe tell us from childhood to today, what makes Jake’s place so special to you and share your story.

Arthur Aston:

Yes, thank you for asking that question and for me to share my story. It really did start when I was, when I was born, I was born with a birth defect called spina bifida, which impacted my mobility. So, before I was born, my spinal cord did not form properly, so I was born with a hole in my back. As the story is told to me, you could see my spinal cord and, it impacted my mobility, as I mentioned. So my leg muscles are very weak. I have to use leg braces and crutches to walk and also a wheelchair, but that was back in 1981 and I will be 41, on the 25th of November. So that’s really, something that I always love to share with people just because, I wasn’t expected to live past the age of 15.

Arthur Aston:

It wasn’t until I was an adult, almost 30 years old when I, I truly, I think, understood why people stared at me. I was with my nephew one day and he was very upset about the way
that his classmates were looking at me when I picked him up from school one day. And, it really hit me then that it’s no big deal to him that I use a wheelchair or crutches, but, the people who don’t know what that is, it’s very different. It’s very strange. So I really wanted to help change the way that people see those who live with disabilities. And around that same time, I was, introduced to the Build Jake’s Place family. And, I connected with them first as a volunteer, back in 2010. And then I became executive director in October of 2013.

Arthur Aston:

And it’s the greatest joy of my life, I think, working with them because what we do there is we help build inclusive play experiences for everybody of every ability. And that was a really big thing for me because although I did use braces and crutches and I was able to get onto playgrounds when I was growing up in the eighties, there were, all the playgrounds had mulch or gravel on them. So it was very, very dangerous for me to walk on the playgrounds cause I would fall often. So to build inclusive playgrounds now and to be a part of an organization that helps, make playgrounds and play spaces more inclusive for everybody is, like I said, it’s a great joy of my life.

Brad Caruso:

Love it. And I’m gonna ask a a relatively obvious question, but why do you feel it’s so important that we make playgrounds inclusive or that that, you know, I know you mentioned some of the challenges that, that you have just given having spina bifida and, and you know, certainly it’s not, it’s just simple mobility is not easy. Why do you feel it’s so important to you to create that inclusive environment?

Arthur Aston:

I think it’s so important because of the statistics surrounding those who have disabilities thought that one out of every four people has some type of disability. And that can be from people who wear glasses or have some type of vision or hearing impairment. And it, I think it’s just the right thing to do , because there are so many people who live with disabilities and that includes children and adults. So that’s the, a great thing that I also like to mention. The playgrounds that we have, when you think of a playground, you think of children, but you don’t think of the adults who may have disabilities who have children. Though the adults who have the disability and their child may or may not have a disability, they can still go to the playground with their child and play on the playground. They don’t have to sit and watch them from the sidelines and, have them enjoy the playground by themselves. So the, the adult with the disability can also, participate in the play experience as well. So if people with disabilities are out in your communities, like we’re your neighbors and your coworkers and we are out in the world and just making anything more accessible for, for those with disabilities is a great thing for everybody. I think

Brad Caruso:

100% agree with you. And you know, I, I have two young kids I love playing on the playground just as much as they love playing on the playground . So, you know, whether they’re, they’re the individuals with disabilities or it’s the parent is super important that we create an environment that both can enjoy it same way as those without. So yeah, I love that answer. And, and love that you’re, you’re working towards this cause. What, what does the landscape in New Jersey look like right now

Arthur Aston:

With New Jersey? Things have, come a long way and as the saying goes, there’s still a long way to go . We have, Jake’s place has built two inclusive playgrounds in the state of New Jersey, one in Camden County, one in Burlington County. And, we have been a big part of having a law passed back in 2018. That will require every county in the state of New Jersey to have at least one inclusive playground. And we know that there are others besides our two playgrounds that exist, and some of them are not as large as the two that we have built. And that is okay, we , you know, we don’t, we don’t, you know, they don’t need to be large. They just need to be inclusive and accessible to other people. You know, New Jersey is, is a small state, but there’s a lot of people and a lot of space. So, we have received phone calls from people in different counties saying that they’ve researched for inclusive playgrounds and ours was the only one that came up for them. And they are, you know, 30 or 40 miles away. So, you know, that shouldn’t be, there are people that live in every county and every town that have disabilities. So if, you know, if not every town has an inclusive playground, we build that at least every county should have multiple, just so that people don’t have to travel as far to locate them.

Brad Caruso:

Yeah, agreed. And talking a little bit more about the not-for-profit organization that you run, tell us a little bit more, cuz obviously one component of what you do is the guidance on building an inclusive playground, which is a, which is a large effort. A lot of dollars go into it, A lot happens. But from my understanding in, in working with you and in, in reading up on your website, there’s a lot more that you do. There’s a lot of education component, there’s a lot of advocacy work you’re doing. Can you talk a little bit more, about what Build Jake’s Place is doing and how, and and what you’re doing as the executive director there?

Arthur Aston:

Yes. So one of the, great things that I, I I love all parts of my job, but one of the things that I get most excited about is, that we have a baseball league, which is a Miracle league for children and adults with disabilities. And, we run that program twice a year, in the fall and then again in the spring. And it just, it, it’s really great because it gives people with disabilities a chance to be active and to participate in baseball, which, America’s favorite pastime. I am in South Jersey and right across the bridge from Philly. So we are Philly’s fans in this area. And, to have that excitement, you know, the Philly’s going to the World Series just , you know, earlier this month. And, you know, so, so we were really, we’re really excited every time we’re able to, bring that program, up for the Miracle League.

Arthur Aston:

And the special thing about it is our players have disabilities, but every player is matched with a buddy who does not have a disability. So, our buddies are at least 13 years old and, they range all the way up to, we have a few senior citizens that are our buddies. And the same thing for our league. Our league, the players started age five and we have players that are in their sixties that play with us. So to bring those two groups of people together, those with and those without disabilities is something that we, you know, we, we cherish that and we, acknowledge that those are two groups of people that are often kept separate or, seen as different. But, through our baseball league, we’re able to bring them together. And then, in the process of building our two playgrounds, we made sure that in the towns that we, built our playgrounds and we went and visited every school to share information about disabilities, to get the kids interested, to get the kids involved, to let them ask questions about, disabilities and why something like an inclusive playground is needed.

Arthur Aston:

And as soon as we tell the kids that, you know, when I was a kid, I’ll, I’ll show up in my wheelchair, for example, to do a presentation. And when I tell kids that, you know, I wouldn’t be able to use my wheelchair on their playground because it has wood chips or gravel, they immediately know that’s not cool, that’s not fair, , that I should be able to, and their friend, who, their classmate who who has a disability, should be able to use the playground too. They wanna know, well, how do we fix this? How do we , how do we make this change and how do we, make this better for everybody? The kids get it right away, they go home and tell their parents, and then that gets the parents motivated and interested and, the fundraising begins . So that is, yeah, and, and I think it’s, it’s the, if if, if they build it, they will come kind of situation, but the end, they also have to know about it.

Arthur Aston:

They have to know that it’s coming and why it’s necessary. And even to this day, our first playground opened in 2011. We have, you know, people that are now out of college or in college that say, oh yeah, I remember being in school and we fundraised for that playground. That’s our playground. Like, they really feel like it is their playground because they put their money toward it, they put their allowances or their pretzel sale money toward it. So it’s really great to, be a part of all aspects of building these types of experiences for everybody.

Brad Caruso:

Yeah. And that, that collective effort is, is important. The, the, the personal connection to, the playground itself, you know, even if it’s a couple dollars, everyone raises it, but I think everyone feels, feels they’re a part of it and everyone feels that they’re doing good. And, you know, certainly your work in, in getting the word out about that and, and bringing that, to these local neighborhoods, to individuals, I think certainly is, is important. So Arthur, I know in our conversations, I heard you have a, a podcast and released way more episodes than I released, which is awesome that, that you, that you do that and, and that you get the word out. How, how are you, how are you getting the word out about education on disabilities and, and these inclusive playgrounds that you’re helping to build?

Arthur Aston:

I think, as most people, especially in the last, two years, it’s social media , that’s the easiest, and most effective way I think to reach a lot of people, in the shortest, you know, shortest amount of time. It goes right out and it goes out to the, the masses right away. I think thankfully, everybody, because everybody has been home lately, we’ve reached a lot more people. Our stories we’ve noticed, our posts have, have reached a lot more people, you know, and with my own podcast as well, posting consistently, I think is the, the biggest thing that we found that that works the best. But we’re hoping for Jake’s place, especially to get back in doing things in person and, you know, getting out there into the schools to raise awareness into these new communities where, as I mentioned, with the law being passed, we have seven townships that are building new playgrounds. So we’re hoping to, be able to get back into that swing of things, to go into the schools in those areas and say like, Hey, here’s what we’re doing. We’re working with your township leaders to, build these new inclusive playgrounds. And, you know, hoping and, hoping that people will support that.

Brad Caruso:

What is a playground cost in general? I mean, obviously each town, each build could be different, but is there an average cost that you tagged to one of the, to, to playground itself or to the build itself?

Arthur Aston:

It really depends on how big the playground is. So the two that we’ve built were over $600,000. And yeah, yeah, they’re , but they’re huge. They’re, they’re really big. And primarily the cost is with the surfacing. So the whole playground is, it’s called poured in place. They literally come and pour this stuff onto the playground. It’s a, non latex rubber solution. But under that, they’re three layers of, there’s stone, like a gravel material. And then there’s some other type of material, and then that’s poured on top, but it bounces, it has like a, a bounce to it, kind of like if you’ve ever been on a, like a gymnastics floor or you’ve seen the people, do the gymnastics floor routines and how when they land, they’re, they’re flipped. They’ve kind of bounce a little bit. So it has that little bit of a spring to it, but it’s very expensive.

Arthur Aston:

, it’s very expensive. And then other factors that go into, the cost are, the ramps. So every part of our playground is, has a ramp feature, so you can get from the lowest to the highest point on the playground, all in your wheelchair or your mobility device. But one thing that we did on purpose was we made our ramps double wide so that two wheelchairs can go up side by side together instead of one behind the other. And we did that because when children run, they usually run side by side together. So we want to have, we wanted to allow the children who use mobility devices like wheelchairs or walkers or crutches to have that same experience of going together side by side. But that adds to the cost because , there’s more, metal that’s used and there’s more space that’s taken up.

Arthur Aston:

And then one of our playgrounds, we have a lot of, I guess, unique, apparatus that are there that were specifically built for that playground. It has a Philadelphia and South Jersey theme to it. So we have a barnyard, for example, we have a replica of, the facade of Independence Hall. So all of those go into the extra costs of, you know, of the playgrounds that, that we have built. But, you know, some, most of the features that we have are, you know, they were necessary to do and, and we felt they were important to add, like the double wide ramps, was something that we made sure that we, included in both, both of our playgrounds

Brad Caruso:

What funding is available, to, to build these. Obviously, you know, you, you’ve had a price tag before. That price tag is probably even going up, with inflation and the costs in the, in the states here rising every day. You know, what type of funding historically has existed or currently exists, and, and is there a gap? Is there a gap in, in making this happen?

Arthur Aston:

So in our experience of building, we found that there isn’t a lot of corporate money that’s available, for these types of playgrounds. We had to do a lot of our, our co-founder Jim Cummings, he always says, we built these playgrounds on $20 bills because they a lot of the money came from the communities, that we are serving. And again, that, that was a good thing because they are really invested in it, literally. And, we were able to partner with, Berkshire Hathaway, the, realtor company. They did a lot of fundraisers for us over the last, you know, since we were, we started, they were our first grant, that we received. And then there were some other, local companies that, that helped out with a lot of, fundraising efforts that we did. But in general, it was very hard to say, you know, we’re building this playground and we need $10,000 for a swing set. And , you know, for companies to say, oh, okay, sure, no problem. That didn’t happen with us, too often. But, you know, I we’re, we’re hopeful that the law being passed, and once people start learning more about that, that we’re, hopeful that the funding will, will come a little bit easier, for those, townships that are building now.

Brad Caruso:

Awesome. And, and what type of fundraising efforts are you currently doing? I mean, if, if I wanted to make a donation to you, how could I go about doing that to, to help your cause?

Arthur Aston:

Yeah, so the one fundraiser that we have now is, we’re doing a, it’s a gift card raffle. So we have over, well over $500 in gift cards, including restaurants and, stores, online stores, golfing experiences. So everything is virtual. You can, go to our website, buildjakesplace.org/donate and enter the raffle through, through that page there. And, that will be, the winner will be announced on December 5th. So, right before the holidays. And it’s, it’s a great, you know, a nice way to support, the organization. It’s a $20 donation to enter, to get one entry into the raffle. $60 gets you five entries and then, a $100 donation gets you, eight entries into the raffle. So that’s what we’re doing now. We really hope to get back to in-person fundraisers in the spring of 2023. Cause we haven’t had an in-person fundraiser and quite some time, but, you know, we’re, we’re still out here and we’re still doing good things and raising awareness and, helping to bring more inclusive play experiences to a state of New Jersey.

Brad Caruso:

And as an organization, obviously, you know, funding is one thing. What, what else, what else do you feel would help further your cause or help further the mission of, of Build Jake’s place? Any, anything else that you can see that, would be helpful to you?

Arthur Aston:

Yeah, I think our, as I mentioned, we have the Miracle League that we, operate. And the one, big thing with that is volunteers. A lot of our volunteers are high school students. They’re, they’re wonderful. I, I always tell them I wish I was that dedicated when I was their age . But, to have volunteers, to help out with that, you know, I think that’s a lot of nonprofits that that are in need of, of the extra hands and, and things like that. And, you know, we don’t have a staff, but we send out, annual appeal letters. So having people to help with, with that and, stuffing those envelopes and sealing those envelopes and things like that are are always, very helpful for our nonprofit. For sure.

Brad Caruso:

Love it. Yeah. And for those out there, if you’re, if you’re looking for a place to volunteer, you’re looking to help, you know, certainly there are opportunities if you’re looking to donate, there’s opportunities to do that, you know, very clearly this goes to a great cause that goes to an organization that’s, that’s moving the needle. Not only in in the actual activity, but in helping pass legislation in getting to the point where, you know, this is a possibility across the state and, you know, taking an idea from a small idea to now translating it to many, many different spaces. And I think certainly you’re, you’re moving the needle from that aspect.

Arthur Aston:

Yes. Yeah, I’m really, I’m really excited. I, as I said, I’ve been with the organization for so long and, and I’m really excited to see how far we’ve gone and, and where we’re continuing to go.

Brad Caruso:

. Love it. So Arthur, as the executive director of Bill Jake’s place. I just want to thank you for joining today’s episode of Civic Warriors. Certainly you are to the true definition of a civic warrior. You know, you’ve been, been affected personally and you’re taking that and paying it forward, which we, you know, we truly appreciate and love, loved the opportunity to have you on here.

Arthur Aston:

Yes. Thank you so much for having me and, it was a good time and I appreciate it.