Pine Bluff municipal leaders accepted a $150,000 check from Blue and You Foundation representatives on Friday to build an inclusive playground at the Lake Saracen Splash Park.
Smiles marked the day as they celebrated the progress. April Layher, Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department director, hopes construction will begin in spring 2017 and be completed before the end of 2017.
Layher hailed these developments as another positive for Pine Bluff. She estimated the construction of the playground will cost $300,000 to complete. The playground will have a surface that will be compatible with wheelchairs and install existing equipment.
“We have a committee in place to develop programming with Jenkins Memorial and the other organizations that serve children with disabilities,” Layher said. “We are excited about it.”
Joy Blankenship, chairman of the Lake Saracen Project Association and executive director of Pine Bluff Downtown Development, agreed with Layher.
“It is a huge investment for Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield to give this for our children in Pine Bluff,” Blankenship said.
Tommy May is the chairman of the Simmons Foundation and a board member of the Blue and You Foundation. He credited Blankenship’s father, the late Louis Ramsay, who was a chairman of Blue Cross and Blue Shield for many years.
“[Louis Ramsay] did so much for not just Pine Bluff but for all of Arkansas,” May said. “[Joy] continues to do the same.”
Curtis Barnett, CEO of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, smiled while discussing the donation. The board has strong relationships in Pine Bluff.
Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield established the Blue and You Foundation in 2001 as a charitable foundation to promote better health in Arkansas. The foundation awards grants annually to non-profit or governmental organizations and programs that positively affect the health of Arkansans.
“We’re thrilled to be a part of this,” Barnett said. “This is first and foremost for the kids of Pine Bluff. I like the fact this is an all-inclusive playground that will appeal to all families in the city. We have a regional office here, so we have employees in this community.”
Patrick O’Sullivan, executive director of the Blue and You Foundation, voiced his support for Pine Bluff.
“Our process is very competitive,” O’Sullivan said. “We had 215 organizations apply for grants, and we chose 30 in the state. This is a way of showing support to the community of Pine Bluff. We were attracted to the project because it’s an all-inclusive playground, allowing kids and families from all walks of life and all abilities to gather and have fun. … We look forward to coming back later in the year and seeing it here.”
Keidra Burrell, assistant to Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, hailed the receipt of the $150,000.
“Anytime we can get investments in our community, I think that’s a great thing,” Burrell said. “This is going to bring a lot of value to the neighborhood and to the children. It is something that is definitely needed.”
The Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department has also received a Simmons First Foundation grant of $25,000 to buy equipment for the playground, which will be equipped to serve children with and without disabilities.
The Lake Saracen Splash Park opened in May 2015 and features 78 programmable water jets that spray from the ground into the air. The park is open from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend and features a wheelchair-accessible changing area and bathrooms.
Other people who took part in the ceremony included Lakesha Whitman, associate director of The Center for Exceptional Families; SeRonna Johnson, director of operations for Disability Resource and Advocacy Center; Greg Gustek, Pine Bluff treasurer and Lake Saracen Project Association executive committee; Christy Furqueron, advocate at Disability Rights Arkansas; Bryan Dorathy, regional executive with Arkansas Blue Cross; Steve Edwards, assistant to Tommy May at Simmons Bank; Zelda Hoaglan, director of Jenkins Center, which serves children with disabilities; and Stephen Bronskill from the office of Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington.