HOWELL – More than two decades ago, a local family channeled their grief into a legacy of love and community with the creation of the Echo Lake Park “tot lot.” Driven by the loss of their 20-month-old daughter, Heather Michelle Alda, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), Robin and Alan Alda sought to honor their child’s memory with a playground area for families to have fun together.
The Heather Michelle Alda Sunshine Fund provided $5,000 for the Echo Lake Park playground development, which officially opened in September 2002. Designed for children ages 3 to 12, the area met standards in place at the time to make it handicapped-accessible.
With the passage of time and changing needs, local officials are now spearheading efforts to revitalize the playground area, aligning with its original purpose of providing a space for families to enjoy. Seeking funding through the State of NJ Green Acres Program, the township aims to introduce a range of new facilities at Echo Lake Park centered around the concept of a Completely Inclusive Playground.
“Echo Lake is getting close to an end of life on the equipment there,” said Township Manager Joe Clark. “That’s what’s driving this particular project in this particular place.”
According to the Environmental Impact Assessment submitted to the state, other Howell parks were considered as far as determining the addition of a Completely Inclusive Playground within the community. Soldier Memorial Park and Oak Glenn Parks were both dismissed because of a lack of adequate space. Deerwood Park was not selected due to improvements already in progress; Pride Park was found to be more tucked away and not regional enough.
The proposed new playground design isn’t just about swings and slides – it’s about creating a world where kids of all abilities can explore, climb, and make friends together. For children with disabilities, inclusive play spaces offer a chance to break free from limitations and experience the joy of movement.
Families won’t need to worry about juggling playgrounds in search of an inclusive space that welcomes children, whether they have special needs or not. Additionally, as they play side by side, children naturally learn empathy and compassion, fostering a sense of community and acceptance.
Preliminary plans for the new playground area include the addition of an ADA-accessible walkway, as well as the installation of a rubberized surface throughout the entire playground area. By eliminating uneven terrain and barriers, everyone should be able to feel safe regardless of mobility or balance issues.
Other proposed enhancements incorporate diverse features, including spinning, sliding, climbing, swinging, and sensory play elements, along with sensory panels, rocking structures, and nature-inspired play structures.
“We’re looking to using this as a potential model for upgrading other parks,” shared Clark. “People in Howell had the vision to pass the Open Space referendum in November. It gives us money for the acquisition of open space and also gives us the ability to do things like this.”
To encourage conservation and recreation, New Jersey’s Green Acres program offers financial support to municipalities and counties that have established open space taxes and plans.
Clark said that the Green Acres grant would cover 75 percent of the project cost. Colliers Engineering & Design has submitted two price estimates for the proposal, ranging from $750,000 to $780,600.
The initiative to build inclusive playgrounds gained momentum with the passage of “Jake’s Law” in 2018. The legislation was established in memory of Jacob Cummings-Nasto, a young boy born with heart disease who passed away. Notably, Cherry Hill boasts a playground called Jake’s Place, a living tribute to the child who inspired the law.
As part of the application process, authorities are required to survey the public for input.
Residents are invited to share their thoughts on the proposed inclusive playground at Echo Lake Park by participating in the Green Acres Funding questionnaire. The survey can be completed anonymously online at forms.office.com/Pages/ResponsePage.aspx. Details concerning equipment changes are included in the materials provided within the questionnaire.
A public hearing is scheduled at the upcoming Council Meeting on February 6, 2024, at 7 p.m. The notice of the public hearing found on the township’s website also includes a visual representation of the Concept Plan.
“We know that there’s a dedication at the playground that gives it more meaning than just a normal playground,” said Matt Howard, Director of Community Development and Land Use Officer. “We intend to maintain that dedication.”