Sherry Kuelz is the President and Co-Founder of the CAMDEN Foundation.
Tell me about your childhood in Rock County.
I was born and raised here. I loved going to the playgrounds and playing with the neighbors. We lived in a house on Center Way.
I attended Consolidated School, then Milton Jr. High and Milton High School. In high school I was involved in volleyball and basketball. They started the first year of basketball when I was there. I was also involved in drama and was in a couple of plays. I enjoyed those experiences.
What were your ambitions after high school?
I went to U-Rock, the first child in our large, extended family to go to college. I went for a degree in journalism.
I’ve been able to use it, mostly in freelance writing. I’ve written things for the Orfordville Journal and The Janesville Gazette, when I wrote a large article on the Harley Owners Group of South Central Wisconsin. It was all about the MDA Tub Run. I’ve also written for various magazines and I loved it!
Tell me about your own family.
My mother had 15 brothers and sisters! But, in my family, there are only three of us; me, my brother, Alan Knutson, and sister, Sara Knutson Long.
What happened after your journalism work?
I was one of the first civilian dispatchers in the late 70’s for the Janesville Fire Department. I loved working for the fire department. I worked with 60 guys who were a lot of fun. There were five dispatchers at that time, well before computers, and we had to memorize all the streets! Sure, we had a map, but we still had to know where to look on the map. It was challenging, but important work.
Eventually, I switched jobs and worked as a secretary at First Lutheran Church. Later, I was employed by Unique Data Service for 28 years. They were based in Janesville, but I could work out of my home. My children, Scott and Brandy, were young at the time. Working from home was convenient for attending school functions and volunteering.
How did Camden Playground get started?
Camden is my nephew, my sister Sara’s son, who has disabilities. He was the inspiration behind it all.
Todd Long, Camden’s stepfather, was at Madison studying Physical Therapy. He called me about a school project and asked me for information about accessible playgrounds. I knew absolutely nothing about accessible playgrounds at the time!
We started talking about how Janesville didn’t have any accessible playgrounds for Camden. Everything just rolled from there. We discussed the idea of getting one made. We had never done anything like this before.
So, I said to Todd, “Okay, we’ll do it! You talk to the top person in the City of Janesville, and I’ll do research about people with special needs and will get a board together.” That was 1989, and in January of 1990 we first met at the Janesville Public Library.
Thirty people show up to be board members, and we had our first donation of a thousand dollars from the late Jim Noll. On a side note, Jim’s daughter bought the first bench down at the playground during this new rebuild in memory of her mom and dad. That was so exciting to hear because I knew Jim and Dolores!
Then, we found out we had to get a nonprofit status and a foundation status. By spring, we were all set!
Fundraising was another issue. We raised money through events like our Beach Party, a Cow Pie Bingo, plus the South-Central Wisconsin Harley Owners Group ride. It’s an annual fundraiser, like the MDA Tub Run. That particular ride is the longest running fundraising ride! We saved up over the years after the first build so we would have the funds to replace the wood, broken equipment, the bark on the ground around the play equipment and any other repairs.
Finally, we had to come up with a name. We couldn’t use Camden’s name because they wouldn’t allow a personal name on the playground. I went home from that meeting and was sitting there, looking at Camden’s picture. After a half hour trying to think of a name for this playground, I looked at Camden’s picture, and I said, “Community Accessibility Medium Dealing with Exceptional Needs. C.A.M.D.E.N.” And that’s how we came up with it! It was like God gave it to me, and I knew it was meant to be.
Tell me about the Camden Foundation board.
Our entire board has made a huge difference here in our community!
When I first started, I researched what we needed and found people with various areas of expertise in dealing with people with disabilities; teachers, doctors, lawyers, family members. We’ve had some who have served since the very beginning. We also have some who left and then came back on the board.
My entire family, mom, Dorothy and my dad, Edward, who passed away in 2012, my brother Alan and Sara have all been on the board, as well. My own children have been involved, my husband has also helped with the playground. The kids helped with both builds, and now they have their own children they can take there to enjoy!
How did you decide the location?
We went around to different areas of the city. We looked at the Rockport Park area and four or five other places. We had to write down the pros and the cons of each one, and then we gave that list to the city.
There were several reasons why we chose Palmer Park. There was enough shade and it’s a flat area so they wouldn’t have to do much excavating. It was also near the wading pool, so the children could cool off there. There were public restrooms, too. We also liked the easy access from Interstate 90 onto Racine Street. The location was approved.
What did your sister, Sara, mother of Camden, think of all of this?
At first, I think she thought we were crazy. But, she was all for it!
I can remember one visit to a different playground with Sara and all of our children. Camden was sitting on the side, watching the children because he couldn’t play on anything. He was still laughing and having fun with the kids, even though he wasn’t able to enjoy the equipment. But, we knew that if he could, he would have been out there.
Camden has both cognitive and physical challenges. And although he struggles with balance, he can walk, which is something the doctors said he would never do.
I remember when it first happened … we were all together on a snowy day. I was holding one of his hands, Todd was holding the other. He was just a child. I had let go of him to pick up a bag that dropped, and assumed Todd had his other hand. But Todd had also let go of his other hand to get the bag. And Camden kept going! I couldn’t believe it and started to shout to his mother, who was walking ahead of us, “Look, look! He’s walking!” It was such a miracle to witness.
When did the building of the first Camden Playground begin?
It took us a while to raise the funds. Finally, with the money raised, coupled with a grant, we were able to start the project. I had collected a wide variety of information for the grant, and our grant writer did an excellent job.
We did research on which architects were the best for accessible equipment. We went with Leathers & Associates out of New York. In fact, they had been featured on Sesame Street! They were very well known for their playgrounds.
I had said I wanted it to be 80-100% accessible. The most accessible playground in the world at that time was only 30%, a park located in Israel. They really didn’t think it could be done.
Finally, the construction began at the end of September 1992. Leathers & Associates oversaw the planning and we had two groups doing the work. Camden Playground changed Leathers & Associates’ construction of accessible parks from then on. Equipment companies also told us that up until this park was built, they didn’t realize the demand for such unique equipment and started manufacturing more!
Tell me about the volunteers.
We had a over 2,500 volunteers from all areas of Rock County and northern Illinois. People came from all over to help build that first playground. It was amazing to see that!
Though I wanted to be out there doing the physical work, I had to supervise, do all the running, make calls … all the ‘behind the scenes’ work. The volunteers took ownership and were so proud of their work. Years later, people would come to the park and say, “I built this.”
When was the playground finally completed?
It was completed on May 23rd, 1993. It was fast. Someone said, “I never thought you’d be able to do it!” But we did!
We completed the build in two phases. There was the smaller area and then the main, larger area. The ramping system and the castle were done in the first phase.
Not many people know this, but there is a time capsule buried in one of the corners of the playground, all things from 1992-’93, including plans from the playground. It’s so cool, and I’m glad that’s preserved.
The playground is sometimes called “The Castle Park.” How did the idea of a castle come about?
We all wanted a castle. So, the designers sent me a diagram that was simple, rectangular. I said, “No, we want it like a medieval, English castle.” And that’s what they came up with! Plus, it had to have a dragon. The life-sized alligator and turtle in the moat are enjoyed by so many little ones.
When was the first time Camden was able to play in the park?
It was at our first Grand Opening in 1993. He helped to cut the ribbon and went into the playground, found the swing for adults with special needs and said, “Swing!” It was the first time he had ever said that word. It was so great and the first time he had ever been able to swing. He just loved it!
We’ve had letters and calls of thanks from people all over. One man said that he had taken his son, who is wheelchair bound, up the ramp. When he took a photo of his happy smile, he realized that was the highest off the ground his son had ever been. Another said that he had taken his daughter, also in a wheelchair, to the ramp with holding bars. She pulled herself up and took a step for the first time!
I love stories like that. So much good has come from just wanting a place for Camden to play!
Tell me how Camden Playground has been modeled worldwide.
Worldwide, there are over 200 playgrounds that have been modeled after Camden Playground! People started to ask me for information on how to build it. There were so many requests, I finally wrote a booklet, which we sell for $25. There’s a replica playground in India, Germany and other countries, plus in states all across the U.S.!
On a trip out west, my husband, kids and I stopped in Montana and saw a playground like ours. When I asked them about it, they said, “It’s modeled after one in Janesville, Wisconsin.” I was so happy to hear that! They give the parks different names, of course.
It amazes me that others have wanted to model their playgrounds after ours. I still find it hard to believe, but we still get letters and calls!
How did you become aware of the need to rebuilding the playground?
The City would do regular inspections, which included looking at the main posts. We were told that those main posts were deteriorating and it was becoming unsafe for the children. That’s when we realized we would need to rebuild the playground.
We started fundraising around 2015, looking for donations from businesses, as well as grant writing. When we had the money, we discovered the rubber flooring went up in price another $20,000! So, we were pretty low on our funds once it was built. We went with the rubber matting because we were saving $10,000 each year it was costing us to replace the bark with the original playground. Anyone can play on this matting. It’s a lot safer for all.
Tell me about the new rebuild.
First the old playground was demolished in mid-August of 2016. Then, the week after Labor Day we started the rebuild. That was the first phase. The City of Janesville Park’s Department brought in workers, as well, and we finished the second phase in May of 2017.
We also had so many volunteers, including guys from the Police Department, Fire Department, so many great workers and helpers.
Did you have as many volunteers as the first time around?
No, unfortunately, we didn’t. Part of that is because of the changes in society, more parents working and it’s difficult to find the time to help. We did have a lot of volunteers, still, and they were wonderful!
We had people volunteer food, drinks, businesses and churches donated to us. Woodman’s and other businesses donated items. Everybody stepped up! We also had childcare, we fed the volunteers, and we had two medical trailers donated in case people got hurt during the build. Milton School District even sent students to help. It was just amazing! We had the help of a lot of generous, good-hearted people in this community!
Our donor sign and the main sign were also donated to us. We’ve had so many donations. There are so many to thank!
Is the playground still a medieval theme?
It is! The entire board wanted to keep the castle. We wanted to keep the medieval theme with the castle, dragon, alligator and sea turtle, too.
We also kept the stage, which is used by children’s groups, theater groups and entertainers. Thursday Noon Entertainment puts on shows during the summer sponsored by the Recreation Division and co-sponsored by McDonald Law Office and Blackhawk Community Credit Union. Someday, we may need to replace the stage because it’s made of wood.
We separated the play areas by ages, which makes it easier for parents. The Tot Lot, is supposed to be a medieval farm. We have Bessie the Cow and other cute animals, plus a like a cart, which they would have used in medieval times.
We have a ship in another area, and the lighthouse, which isn’t medieval, but still fun. It was really cool watching the lighthouse being placed in the park by a huge crane.
We have 13-foot tall Rainforest Climbing Wall tucked inside the playground. I especially like the educational, interactive sign that goes with it (donated by Sullivan Signs), so children can find the animals and learn about them.
How did the pickets fundraising idea come about?
We wanted something that surrounds the playground, like a “hug” around the park. They are two colors, brown on the outside with white lettering on the inside. They’re made of modern, durable material and are weatherproof.
Anyone can purchase a picket through Johnson Bank on Holiday Drive in Janesville, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Proceeds from this fundraiser will go toward any repairs or upkeep on the playground, or even toward a rebuild when that time comes. They’re $50 each, and a cool way to “leave your mark” at Camden Playground. There is room for 21 letters and spaces (no symbols) on a picket, as long as it’s child appropriate. We’ve sold 200 so far, and we still have a lot of space for more.
A brochure can be obtained at Johnson Bank on Holiday Drive. For more information on the Camden Picket Line fundraiser, visit the group’s website.
Students in Parker High School’s Tech Ed department have volunteered the work on the pickets. They use a laser cutter but can’t work on them during the summer when school’s not in session. If we could ever find someone who has a laser router that could continue this work for us we’d be thrilled.
Tell me about the Silent Auctions.
The Ladies of Harley have been holding the silent auction fundraisers for many years. We can always use more donations. Our next silent auction will be held on September 8th, 2018. Watch the Camden Playground Facebook page for all updates.
When is the Grand Opening of the new Camden Playground?
The Grand Opening will be on June 23, 2018! We are inviting the public, everyone is welcome! It starts at 11 a.m. with a short program from 11:30 – 12. The Janesville Police will be there with a car and the Fire Department will bring a truck. We’ll have arts and crafts for children. There might even be a scavenger hunt in the playground. It’ll be such a fun event!
Have you organized community projects or fundraising in the past?
Back in 1993, when people in Bosnia were suffering from the war, I went out and collected school supplies for the children there. The back of my van was full of school supplies. The students at schools in Evansville, Footville, Orfordville and a few schools in Janesville packed the supplies into boxes and we sent them to the children of Bosnia.
That fundraiser was going on during the building of the park, so a busy time! When it comes to children suffering, that is really something that that touches my heart. Someone has to help! The news stories of children who needed school supplies, how their schools were destroyed and they had no way to learn … I just had to do something.
Do you feel that society has changed in its attitude toward people with disabilities?
Oh yes! I think people with disabilities are accepted a lot more than in the past. People with special needs are the largest minority group in Wisconsin. I’m sure a lot of people don’t realize that. They make up a large part of our community.
Now here in Janesville, we have this beautiful playground where the kids are all equal. It’s in a natural environment, they’re having fun in a place where they don’t see children with special needs any differently. There they have an opportunity to play and interact, a chance to get to know one another.
Area schools take a lot of field trips to Camden Playground, as well, and it’s a great place where all children, including those with disabilities, can just have fun together.
In your view, what’s great about Rock County?
I love the fact that people here come together when they’re needed. They are willing to help out in whatever ways they can. There are so many fundraisers here, there’s so much volunteerism.
And the people of Rock County are accepting of others, people of other races, people with special needs. People just seem to care about each other here … it’s different than in bigger cities.
Are you pleased with the rebuild?
Yes, I am! It was hard at first. Just like anything, the old one was kind of like “my baby.” But, once it was done, I thought, “Wow, I’m glad we did this!”
There is more accessibility than the previous playground. There’s more safety, too, which is what you want. We have a wheelchair swing and accessibility for wheelchairs everywhere! It’s so child-like and fun.
Yes, I’m very pleased.
“So much good has come from just wanting a place for Camden to play!” ~ Sherry Kuelz