The playground builder’s secret and why he’s bringing fun to Windsor Essex

Sreedha Varanasi
By Sreedha Varanasi April 21, 2018 18:02

Braeden St. Louis at Play McGivney in Windsor, Ont. on April 6, 2018. Photo by Sreedha Varanasi.

As the air whooshes past the boy’s body, he closes his eyes to feel the chilly breeze and clings to the chains on either side of him.

Braeden St. Louis swings back and forth, back and forth, letting out exuberant laughs at each upswing.

A 13-year-old boy with Down syndrome, autism and hip dysplasia, Braeden looks forward to this every time he visits Play McGivney.

On his last upswing of the day, he opens his eyes and looks up to see the man responsible for his joy on the playground, Mark Jones.

This is the first time they’ve met.

Jones is the brains behind the largest, fully accessible playground in Windsor, Ont. at the John McGivney Children’s Centre.

“I’ve always had an infatuation for playgrounds since I was a kid,” said Jones.

Mark Jones looks on as Braeden St. Louis enjoys the accessible swing at the John McGivney Centre in Windsor, Ont on April 6, 2018. Photo by Sreedha Varanasi

“I would say (I’ve built) well over 100 ([playgrounds)] and in the last 3 years, probably about 15 fully accessible ones.”

An accessible playground is one that includes the structural provisions that allow children with disabilities to play safely.

“People think ramps make playgrounds accessible, and that’s definitely not the case. They’re great if you have heights … but what you have to look at is all the kinds of children who might play there and their needs.”

According to Jones, that includes having multiple activities available at various levels of difficulty. For Jones, a fully inclusive playground has to involve all the senses.

In his effort to build safe, accessible playgrounds, Jones said he completed an advanced accessible design course. However, accessibility isn’t Jones’ sole focus when designing playgrounds.

His focus is fun.

“It’s a fun playground (for) anybody, it should not look like it’s an ‘accessible’ playground,” said Jones.

“A child who is using a wheelchair should look at the playground and say, I want to play there, and a child who is a hockey player and a stud athlete (should) look at (the playground) and say I want to go play there.”


The public reaction


Jones has received social media attention for his playground designs, with many Facebook users praising his out-of-the-box style. User Kim-Marie Elliot called the designs “magical experiences” while user Daniel Inverarity said all other designers in Canada are “second best” to Jones.

“I love what I do and I’m passionate about it and I’m trying to make it better for everybody.  I just want playgrounds to be a place where children can get away from their daily stresses,” said Jones.

However extravagant or unique the design, Jones said the design process is simple for him.

‘I’ll just go to the site and I’ll visualize it with the surroundings. I don’t know how to explain it it’s just something that I have and I’m lucky to have it.”


The secret he’s never revealed


Although Jones says he has always been a builder, playgrounds hold a special place in his heart.

There is an aspect of his life he says not many know about, and it’s what catapulted him into the career he is in now.

“I have never told anybody this, because there is the stigma out there but I, myself, have an attention deficit issue.”

Only a few people in his life know about the issues Jones faced as a child and still faces to this day.

Mark Jones looking at his work on Play McGivney on April 6, 2018. Photo by Sreedha Varanasi.

“I would always have a problem if you’re talking to me for a long period of time or in classes I would be staring outside and… I just could not take things in,” Jones explained.

“I always thought I was a little bit more stupid than some people.… I hate to use that word but that’s how you feel. I still deal with it today, if I’m at a party or something and there’s a long conversation I will zone out. It’s really hard.”

Jones said he believes play time was when he felt most normal and happy.

“It’s what connected with me as a child, and that’s what got me through life,” said Jones.

His thoughts about playtime are not unfounded.


What the research says


A 2012 research literature review on the role of play in child development concluded playtime is crucial for children’s health and well-being.

“Active play has the paradoxical effect of increasing attention span and improving the efficiency of thinking and problem-solving. Two hours of active play per day may help reduce attention deficits and hyperactivity,” wrote Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor at Utrecht University whose research focuses on the use of play in education, health and science.

“Abundant research has shown … play during early childhood is necessary if humans are to reach their full potential.”


Playtime wasn’t always hard for Braeden


Twyla St. Louis is Braeden’s mother, and she said Braeden comes alive when he is playing on Jones’ playgrounds.

“It is just a joy to see him play like every other child because he didn’t always have this much trouble with playgrounds,” explained St. Louis.

Braeden wasn’t diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia until recent years.

“He always struggled with walking but we just assumed it was due to Down syndrome,” explained St. Louis.

“He first saw an orthopedic surgeon in May 2014.”

The results came in that summer.

“By January of 2015, he was using a wheelchair — and in pain.”

When the only known disabilities Braeden had were autism and Down syndrome, his family installed a playground made especially for him.

“We did the research, we found out what would be best for his autism and Downs and we installed this great little playground in our backyard.”

Little did they know, he wouldn’t enjoy it for long.

“We had a rock climbing wall, and to watch him not be able to go up the rock climbing wall was personally a very heartbreaking moment for me to have him go, ‘Help. Help.’

“We would personally have to lift his legs so that he could actually go up the wall.”

Braeden’s hip dysplasia rendered him dependent on a wheelchair. Playtime seemed like a distant memory for Braeden.

Braeden discovered Play McGivney on Superhero Day at the John McGivney Children’s Centre. He was sporting a Superman costume, complete with muscles and a smile.

This time, his shouts were not of pain, but of excitement.

Braeden St. Louis playing at Play McGivney on April 6, 2018. Photo by Sreedha Varanasi.

St. Louis said the playground challenged him to explore and do more than she thought possible.

“We’ve been told that he wasn’t going to walk again and you can see all the things that he’s actually doing. Because it’s colourful and it’s fun,” said St. Louis.

“He’s really doing a lot more than we ever expected him to. We’re very, very grateful, very happy that this has been built. It’s an amazing, amazing park.”

Despite the huge impact St. Louis said Jones had in her family’s life, they had never met.

That was all going to change.


The meeting


It was 10 a.m. on April 7 and Jones was about to meet Braeden, a boy whom Jones later called his “hero.”

“He may tell you I am his hero, but it is the other way around,” said Jones in a Facebook post.

As Jones approached the St. Louis’ family vehicle in the parking lot of Play McGivney, the anticipation in his face was bursting. He walked around the vehicle and immediately hugged St. Louis.

“I’m a hugger,” he said, brimming with joy.

Braeden’s sister and caretaker Marissa St. Louis, 20, was helping Braeden put on his ski pants for the cold weather as Jones waited, eager to meet the boy at last.

As Braeden was lifted up and into his wheelchair, he immediately pointed in the direction of the tangerine and azure-coloured play area. He was clearly eager too — to play.

Jones extended a greeting.

“Hi, buddy!”

“Let’s go!” Braeden exclaimed, without missing a beat.

He was wheeled over to the blue swing, which happened to be Braeden’s favourite colour.

As he swung, the joy emanating from Braeden was reflected in the face of Jones, as he took a video with his cellphone.

That day, Braeden and Jones played for two hours on the playground. Braeden left a mark on Jones that he said he would never forget.

Mark Jones and the St. Louis family on the accessible teeter-totter at Play McGivney on April 6, 2018. Photo by Sreedha Varanasi

“I am laughing and tearing up. He had so much fun. I think I may have had just as much,” said Jones.

“He is just another kid who wants to have fun just like everyone else.”

St. Louis wrote a message for Jones, expressing her gratitude for his playgrounds.

“You make our lives easier and more joyful. You truly love with your whole heart. Your generosity knows no bounds and you make Essex County a better place to live,” she wrote.


An uncertain future


While Jones’ playgrounds are loved by the communities that use them, they are expensive to build, resulting in four out of five of Jones’ Windsor-Essex tender bids being rejected this year. The results of the fifth bid haven’t been released yet.

He said he may not be able to continue the business locally without support from the city.

“I am all about community,” said Jones.

“I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to making play opportunities for all children in our local community, but I can’t do that without jobs.”

Jones said he donates 60 per cent of his income to organizations helping disabled children and to playgrounds for disabled children. For him, money was not a concern in the past, but it’s becoming more so every day.

He was considering a travelling job working with organizations across Ontario that help children with accessibility issues. Jones said leaving Windsor-Essex was never in his plan.

“It is a very hard choice, because my movement to make as many playgrounds in Essex County accessible could take a hit,” said Jones. “That would kill me.”

He didn’t take the job.

Whatever the future of his playground business, Jones said he will not give up on his goal.

Jones waved goodbye to the St. Louis family on that day at the park and got into his truck. He revved his engine, grinning ear-to-ear.

“Braeden was incredible, an absolutely determined and fun young man. He enjoyed that playground immensely, which makes my job so much fun,” said Jones, grinning as he turned his wheel.

“I just don’t have the words, I am so happy today.”

While Jones was left speechless, Braeden had only one thing to say as he swung back and forth on that blue swing at Play McGivney.

He let go of those chains on either side of him, held his arms out like wings, and opened his eyes.


Sreedha Varanasi
By Sreedha Varanasi April 21, 2018 18:02

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