Gwendolyn Strong Foundation
You’d be hard-pressed to find a local nonprofit that brought its outsized quest to fruition more speedily than did the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation, which in its six short years of existence has already accomplished two major goals.
Heartbroken but determined to make a difference when their young daughter was diagnosed with the rare neurological disease Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), parents Victoria and Bill Strong sprang into action. The couple launched into advocacy, contacting medical specialists and lobbying Congress to increase funding for research and testing, which has already resulted in a new gene therapy that can dramatically help future infants with SMA.
But the Strongs didn’t stop there.
Gwendolyn also exceeded the timelines of her dire prognosis, living to age 7 – along the way exhibiting an exuberance that proved utterly contagious to all around her. Although profoundly disabled, she took trips to places kids normally go, including playgrounds. The problem was, none of the family recreational spaces in Santa Barbara had been constructed with the physically challenged child in mind.
So the Strongs poured their attention into remedying that situation. That effort has now resulted in a fully-funded project to turn the timeworn Dwight Murphy Field near East Beach into Gwendolyn’s Playground; the first fully-inclusive play area in town. The intention is to both increase access and enrich the public space for the entire community, elevating play for all.
“We’re completely reshaping what a community public play space can be,” explained Victoria Strong. “Children with disabilities will no longer be expected to just watch other children play. Now those kids can get much more involved. And parents won’t just have to sit on the sidelines and look at their phones while their kid goes up the slide twice and then the family heads for home. It’s a multi-generational meeting space with walking paths, gardens, public art – and attention to making it something for everyone, not just those with little bodies. That means multiple activities with larger sizes, so grandparents can get on the swing.”
The project has a larger purpose than just having a good time. Rather, it’s about recognizing that playgrounds are vital public spaces for community connection and social development. Making the space an inclusive and integrated facility embodies a sensible approach to helping everyone belong, recognizing that bringing everyone together, no matter their physical abilities, helps develop a genuine understanding of the world and encourages appreciation of the differences between people.
That insight came from their own experience with Gwendolyn, a bright and very social child who had insisted on attending school in the mainstream classrooms rather than in a segregated one for the severely disabled.
“We got to see firsthand what true inclusion really looks like,” Strong said. “On her first day, the kids were all wanting to know about the machines and her wheelchair, but once those questions were answered, they moved on and Gwendolyn was just their peer. They started naturally changing their games on the playground at recess so she could be involved, navigating on their own without the adults showing them how, just because they valued her. That can’t happen if you don’t have an environment where people get to be all together. That’s what Gwendolyn’s Playground is looking to accomplish. It’s leveling the playing field, and it’s letting kids be our teachers.”
The new playground will also have vastly improved baseball and soccer fields, upgraded bathroom and shower facilities, and a whole host of other opportunities not currently available at Dwight Murphy. There are plans to turn a vintage custom trailer into a snack shop called the Kindness Cafe that will employ adults and teens with disabilities alongside those more typically abled in a mentorship model to learn both work and social skills.
“More than 80 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, so we wanted to create an opportunity to really show the community their value and worth,” Strong said.
No doubt Gwendolyn’s Playground is a virtuous vision, but as of late last year, it’s also about to become a reality. A fundraising campaign drew an array of donation types that ranged from kids operating lemonade stands to million-dollar gifts from a major foundation. Resources thus raised just topped the $6 million goal required to get the project underway, and it is now going out for bids. Groundbreaking is anticipated before the end of the year.
Gwendolyn’s playground will be one of the larger play spaces in town, and so the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation is still fundraising. Their remaining $2.5 million goal assures innovative and inclusive programming going forward, collaborations with other nonprofits that serve the community, and the long-term maintenance and upkeep of a vast playground that will nearly be a bustling village unto itself.
The Strongs have extended to January the original end-of-year deadline to join Gwendolyn’s Playground’s group of Founding Partners, with gifts starting at $2,500 earning a commemorative paver or plaque at the entry plaza.
After that’s complete, and the playground is open and running smoothly, there’s the thought that the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation might sunset, a virtually unheard-of process for successful nonprofits. But the organization is run by its founders with just a single part-time employee, and envisioning the foundation’s happily successful closure was on their minds from the beginning.
“We really do look forward to the day when we’re no longer needed,” Strong said. “The focus has always been our continued advocacy if we’re needed, and relevant. But our goal is that the playground won’t require much oversight, and other nonprofits can step up and really run the ongoing programs. That’s something we’ve considered since we started.”
Gwendolyn Strong Foundation
Executive Director: Victoria Strong
In tribute to the kindness and inclusivity Gwendolyn inspired wherever she went, we are building the first fully inclusive playground in Santa Barbara so all children have the opportunity to just be one of the kids. Gwendolyn Strong Foundation also continues to offer practical family support for the overwhelming expenses of life with a disability, helping give families greater independence.
Begin to Build a Relationship
We know you care about where your money goes and how it is used. Connect with this organization’s leadership in order to begin to build this important relationship. Your email will be sent directly to this organization’s director of development and/or Executive Director.
The Manitou Fund’s support of Gwendolyn’s Playground is not a gift but an investment in the standard we hold for this special corner of the world. Unbridled, unrestricted, and totally inclusive play is what truly fosters social growth, empathy, and joy. Its impact ripples out and benefits us all.
Never Give Up
• 25% of the population has a disability, the largest minority group in the world
• Santa Barbara has 0 inclusive playgrounds 2023 is the last year to become a Founding Partner! Join us in leaving a lasting legacy by building inclusion for all. Recognition of your community investment will be artfully displayed within the park.
$2,500 – Commemorative Paver
$5,000 – Community Partner Plaque
$10,000 – Kindness Partner Plaque
$25,000 – Friendship Partner Plaque
$50,000 – Butterfly Partner Plaque
$75,000 – Rainbow Partner Plaque
$150,000 – NEVER GIVE UP. Partner Plaque
NEVER GIVE UP. Partners $150K+
Nora McNeely Hurley
The Mildred E. & Harvey S. Mudd Foundation and the Sprague Family
Grassini Family Vineyards
Robin & Roger Himovitz
RAINBOW Partners $75K+
The Foley Family
Smidt Family Foundation
Alice Tweed Tuohy Foundation
BUTTERFLY Partners $50K+
Deckers Outdoor Corporation
Grace Fisher Foundation
Belle & Lily Hahn
Hutton Parker Foundation
Montecito Bank & Trust
Natalie Orfalea Foundation
Paskin Family Foundation
Rudi Schulte Family Foundation
FRIENDSHIP Partners $25K+
Ann Jackson Family Foundation
Mary & Lucy Firestone
KINDNESS Partners $10K+
Girl Scout Troop 50396
Santa Barbara Foundation