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Recycling city infrastructure for special needs children

Obsolete equipment and materials from around Christchurch is getting a new lease on life as it finds its way to a special children’s playground in New Brighton’s Rawhiti Doman.

The sensory playground is designed to give all children, especially those with special needs, the opportunity to explore their senses through interaction with nature and their environment.

The playground has a sensory path leading children around the site as they experience all it has to offer. There are different surfaces to walk on, a boat to climb in, different things to touch, plants to smell and taste, and sound-producing activities to experience. There is also a special area where parents who have lost a child can place a special toy or item in memory of their child and the child’s association with the garden.

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The playground was the brainchild of Kelly Dugan, the founder of SmileDial New Zealand, a Christchurch-based charity that assists families of children with special needs. Kelly, whose seven-year-old daughter has cerebral palsy, came up with the idea and volunteers helped make it all happen. The wheelchair-accessible garden opened in 2016.

An avid supporter of the playground is Citycare Property Supervisor Doug Peek. Doug is always on the lookout for items that can be recycled into something useful and fun at the playground, rather than sent to landfill. Some of the large plastic traffic sheep that used to feature on inner-city pavements have been put out to pasture in the sensory garden, where they were recently joined by one of the New Brighton tiny huts – one of Doug’s latest additions at the sensory garden.

The two metre by two metre tiny hut resembles a Rubik’s Cube. It previously occupied a spot in New Brighton Mall; one of five tiny huts temporarily installed during the 2016/17 summer period as part of the Christchurch City Council’s Enliven Places Programme.

When it was time to do maintenance and decide if the hut should stay or be dismantled, Doug suggested it could be spruced up, given a fresh coat of paint and become a fun addition to the garden.

“I always keep SmileDial and the kids in the back of my mind when out on the job,” says Doug. “Anything that is surplus to Citycare’s requirements, and which may be suitable for the kids, I try to repurpose and give a new lease of life.

“We are essentially turning trash into treasure.”

“There are little pockets of Doug throughout the garden,” says SmileDial founder Kelly Dugan.

“Things just arrive thanks to Doug’s initiatives and support. The kids and their families absolutely love them. It also means the garden is ever-changing and each time families visit, there will be something new and exciting for the children.”

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Citycare also helped with construction of some of the garden’s features, providing its services free of charge.

Citycare Group CEO Onno Mulder says the organisation’s support of initiatives like SmileDial is indicative of a wider shift towards more active engagement with local communities.

“Instead of traditional sponsorships where corporates simply hand out cash, we are more interested in facilitating true community partnerships that have a demonstrable impact.”

SmileDial receives no government funding, so is reliant on community and corporate support.

“Without the backing of organisations like Citycare we simply wouldn’t exist,” says Kelly. “They are instrumental to what we do.”