Inclusive Playground opens

Ribbon cut during Friday ceremony

  • Darylynn Lheureux, 8, left, and Lily Christopher, 7, take a turn on one of the toys at the new South Clinton Inclusive Playground on Friday, Nov. 1, during the grand open- ing of the park. - G. Chambers Williams III

  • Natalie Erb of Norris cuts the ribbon signifying the official opening of the South Clinton Inclusive Playground on Hiway Drive on Friday, Nov. 1, with help from Christina McNally. Erb and her husband, David (left of Natalie), hatched the plan for the park in memory of their daughter Amelia, who died in 2015 at age 5. McNally teamed with the Erbs to write applications for grant money and find other donations for the park, which also received state and local government funding. - G. Chambers Williams III

With the snip of a ribbon, Natalie Erb on Friday helped mark the opening of the special playground she and her husband, David, envisioned as a memorial to their daughter Amelia, 5, who died in 2015 from a rare condition.

About 250 people showed up for the grand opening ceremonies at the South Clinton Inclusive Playground, led by Clinton City Manager Roger Houck.

Natalie Erb spoke to the crowd about her experiences trying to find a playground with equipment that would accommodate her special-needs child. She said that Amelia, whose nickname was Milly, “was always the happiest when she was swinging.”

Houck praised the efforts of the Erbs, who live in Norris, and Clinton resident Christina McNally for conceiving the park idea and working tirelessly over the past three years to bring it to reality.

After Amelia died unexpectedly in her sleep in 2015 from her medical condition, the Erbs began looking for a way to honor her. Amelia struggled with developmental difficulties her entire short life, but according to her parents, always had a smile on her face when she could swing.

The Erbs founded Milly’s Wings in 2016, a nonprofit dedicated to raising money for a special playground with equipment that could accommodate virtually all children, including those with special needs.

They connected with McNally, who had a similar idea and a possible location -- the 30-year-old South Clinton Park on Hiway Drive, next to South Clinton Elementary School.

Over the next couple of years, Milly’s Wings raised money for the park, and McNally took charge of writing grant applications to secure corporate and charitable group funding for the park.

The city came up with a $75,000 contribution of its own, along with providing the park site, but also worked to get a 50-50 matching grant of $115,000 from the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation.

McNally and the Erbs worked with the city and finally got all the money lined up in time for construction to begin at the site in August, Houck said.

During September and early October, work progressed rapidly as the contractor for the project, recreation equipment firm Miracle of KY & TN, began grading the land and installing swings, slides, shelters and other elements of the playground.

Concrete work was completed in the days just before last week’s opening of the park. Artificial turf was put down throughout the play area as an accommodation to wheelchair users who would have had a hard time negotiating a natural grass surface.

A restroom building at the rear of the playground was renovated to create up-to-date family-friendly restrooms, Houck said during Friday’s ceremony, adding that the only equipment still to be installed are seven giant musical instruments.

Those are being paid for by the East Tennessee Lions Eye Bank. Designed especially for sight-challenged kids, the instruments include chimes, drums, and a xylophone.

David Erb, an Allstate insurance agent in Clinton, and Natalie Erb, a CPA who is chief financial officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley in Knoxville, worked with McNally to secure private grants and donations from organizations such as the Lions Clubs International Foundation ($100,000), the Allstate Foundation ($26,000), United Way of Anderson County, and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, they said.

The playground takes up about a half-acre of the park, which has about two acres total, said Jason Brown, Clinton’s director of parks and recreation. When the city was approached by McNally and the Erbs, the South Clinton site was offered because its playground equipment was old and in need of replacement, he added.

Natalie Erb said earlier that the public-private partnership was able to bring in money from both realms to raise enough to pay for the park they wanted to build. “The neat thing about working with the city is that we could go out and get grants the city couldn’t get,” she said.

The playground, which has two parking lots, is now open daily from dawn to dusk, Brown said.

There are no admission fees.