The sun shined brightly as Melody and her mom approached the newly installed Melody Garden located at Heritage Elementary in Wentzville, Missouri. For most of the day, volunteers including the Wentzville Firefighter Outreach and Cunningham Recreation worked to install inclusive outdoor Freenotes Harmony Park musical instruments and buddy bench. The space that Melody had envisioned two years prior was finally a reality. A dream had been realized and all her hard work had paid off.
All Melody ever wanted was to feel included while hanging with her friends during recess. She found that friends would greet her and spend little time with her before running towards the playground structure. Melody was forced to sit on the sidelines because the concrete barriers and pea gravel posed obstacles for her mobility device. Despite the landmark ADA law enacted 30 years ago ensuring access for people with disabilities, public places including schools still today have playgrounds that are inaccessible.
One day while in fourth grade, Melody Day looked beyond the barriers and saw opportunities. Since the school district did not have funds earmarked for playground renovation, she decided she would raise the money herself. Consequently, she designed a PowerPoint presentation and asked the school principal if she could present her case. Shortly thereafter, a Go Fund Me was set up and the news spread around the school; Melody Day has set out to bring more inclusion to our playground. Kids started to pitch in and create items to sell. Allowances were given, birthday gifts were exchanged for support towards this mission and the PTA declared that this project had the utmost priority.
Melody’s physical therapist knew a lady who specialized in creating inclusive play spaces while offering strategies and tools to secure philanthropic dollars. Victoria Babb, Community Resource Manager for Cunningham Recreation who directs the social impact arm known as Play 4 ALL, was invited to join the team. Months later, the Melody Garden was designed and 100% of the funds secured.
Most eleven-year-olds would yearn for many other materialistic items but for Melody her heart was determined to bring a play space where children with and without disabilities could play together. She did not ask for anything but to create a place where “kids to feel happy and could let their imaginations spread wide.” She made it her personal mission to hold the promise that we all belong and have the right to fully participate regardless of ability. Her hope is that the Melody Garden will have a ripple effect so other parts of the existing structures would be assessed and replaced for her elementary schools as well as others.
Babb said, “There’s nothing that can stop a mission like creating spaces for children to play together. Play is universal, a great equalizer. We need more of these spaces than ever before.” Because Melody inspired her entire school and surrounding community, she was awarded the Youth Champion 4 Inclusion Award from Play 4 ALL and Cunningham Recreation. The award is accompanied by a gift of a Buddy Bench to be installed at the location of the recipient’s choice and a gift card. Last year’s recipient was a middle schooler from Goddard, Kansas.
Tears of joy streamed down Melody’s face as her mom pushed her to the Melody Garden to cut the ribbon during the dedication ceremony. “I am amazed by this,” she repeated. Her gratitude was felt by everyone in attendance. Sometimes it’s the little things that have the greatest impact. A space with six musical instruments and a bench speaks volumes to Melody and people like Melody – it said that you are a valued member of this community and that regardless of what you can or cannot do – you belong!