When the Magical Bridge playground opened in Palo Alto in 2015, the driving force behind the all-abilities recreational space, Olenka Steciw Villarreal, figured her mission had been accomplished.
“I thought I’d checked my community service box for life. At that moment, my community service team went back to their lives,” she said.
But today, five years later, Villarreal finds herself still very much involved — and leading the charge to build more playgrounds along the Peninsula.
She’s become a pioneer in a movement that won’t let her quit.
Magical Bridge was inspired by Villarreal’s daughter Ava, who has developmental disabilities, and by the utter lack of safe, public play spaces suited to Ava and others like her. Tucked in a corner of Mitchell Park, the brightly colored Magical Bridge includes a wheelchair-usable spinner and slides, swings that keep a user upright and fastened in, wheelchair-friendly surfaces, a wheelchair-usable treehouse and a stage — features that are friendly to people with visual impairments, autism and cognitive disabilities.
Just as important to Villarreal, it’s friendly to parents, grandparents, teens and children who don’t have a disability but who can also join in. Magical Bridge, she said, is teaching people of all ages to play together with an acceptance of their differences.
Since the Magical Bridge opened, it has gained attention across the globe, including at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2019, where its popular laser harp was on exhibit. The playground was also featured at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, as part of its “Access+Ability” exhibition.
Villarreal is quick to say she didn’t build the Magical Bridge alone. It took a caring and engaged community of people who valued the project: donors, institutions, schoolchildren, parents and the city.
But at its heart, Villarreal and her friend and playground co-founder, Jill Hoffspiegel Asher, are the forces behind Magical Bridge. Passionate, focused and driven, they see playgrounds not as islands, but as the clarion calls in a movement for valuing all members of a community equally.
With the establishment of a relatively new foundation to boost their goals, Villarreal, who is CEO, and Asher, who is executive director, are branching out. They’re creating Magical Bridge playgrounds throughout the Peninsula, including at Mountain View’s Rengstorff Park as well as other cities in Santa Clara County, and consulting on projects throughout the country and the world.
Beyond creating innovative physical space, the Magical Bridge Foundation provides programming, concerts and events that attract participation.
On a Saturday last month, the nonprofit organization hosted “Let’s Get Rolling,” a hands-on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics)-themed set of activities around wheelchairs and mobility devices at the playground in Palo Alto. The fun included wheelchair test drives, make-and-take crafts, a story time and a Q&A with Miss Wheelchair California 2019, who used a swing for the first time in 20 years since she had an accident, Villarreal said.
The first lady of Magic
It was in the early mid-2000s when Villarreal looked for a suitable playground where Ava and her other daughter, Emma, who is non-disabled, could play together. She asked Greg Betts, the city’s then-Community Services Department director, which of Palo Alto’s 34 playgrounds could accommodate Ava. Betts said all parks were compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Villarreal, however, explained that ADA rules only required “accessibility” and not the actual usability of the playground equipment.
“Greg said we could do a walk-through,” she recalled. But Villarreal had another idea: They should do a “roll through,” an exercise that would be mindful of how a wheelchair user would approach the playground.
“Layer it with adults and seniors and all of a sudden the (city’s existing) playground is not compliant,” she said.
Betts didn’t need any lobbying. He offered Villarreal a space in an unused corner of Mitchell Park — if she could come up with the funding, she said.
Villarreal set out to gather community members at her home, often meeting around her kitchen table to sketch out how the playground could serve people’s various needs. She began to meticulously research different kinds of playground equipment, and she also found there were many people with cognitive disabilities who needed accommodations such as respite huts. The play equipment also had to be suitable for children with autism, who found the usual structures frenetic and overwhelming, she said.
Villarreal thought it would be a simple enough task to find an off-the-shelf playground, but to her surprise, no manufacturer had a ready-made set. Nor were there adult-accessible playgrounds designed so that parents and grandparents in wheelchairs could interact with their children and grandchildren, she said.
The “universal” playground she envisioned would have to be designed from scratch. Right off the bat, Villarreal and Asher focused on creating a playground that would be fun for the whole family.
“It’s important that it never gets pegged as a ‘special-needs’ park. There is nothing special about needing to play,” Asher said.
The project began to take on a life of its own. As awareness of the effort grew, so did public interest, and Villarreal soon found that Palo Altans welcomed the idea, she said.
Over the course of seven years, Villarreal, Asher and other community members raised funds from individuals and foundations. The city kicked in $300,000 in seed money for the design.
Real estate developer Richard Peery became a significant donor, helping the project reach its $4.1 million goal.
Peery’s son, David, had talked with Villarreal and brought her project to his father’s attention for funding by the Peery Foundation.
“There was nothing like it before,” the elder Peery said. “Her idea was perfectly well planned out in every respect. This thing worked. It should be a model for all parks.”
Peery said he was most impressed with Villarreal’s’ thoroughness.
“She’s done her homework. You’re not going to get a better return on your investment. The city supported it; the land was a piece of wasted land that was not used. Now everybody wants (a Magical Bridge),” he said.
Villarreal, a former marketing executive, also has traits that encourage people to join her, Peery added.
“She’s very personable and she has some, real, vested interest. She also has drive. She worked a long time. She was innovative and she had the guts to go ahead and do it,” he said.
Peery was also drawn to her “kindness” concept, which sought to develop people’s compassion and understanding through the Magical Bridge’s programming. That parallel effort now includes a robust Kindness Ambassadors program, with 50 volunteer high school students — with and without disabilities — who help at the playground and develop promotional materials.
Asher, a tech-marketing professional, said she immediately wanted to volunteer for the project as soon as Villarreal talked about it. The two women met through the Palo Alto and Menlo Park Mothers’ Club and their two older daughters went to Addison Elementary School together, she said.
“Olenka is so passionate. She just wants to do the right thing, and it all stems from kindness. She is persistent, thoughtful and kind. She is laser-focused,” Asher said.
Asher also was struck by Villarreal’s abilities to balance a major project like Magical Bridge and caring for a child with profound disabilities. Ava is non-verbal and, even at 17, she needs some basic care.
Villarreal shed light on that aspect of her life during a November Tedx talk in San Francisco: Her day starts early each morning with Ava coming into her bedroom holding a beloved copy of the book “Where’s Spot?” Villarreal needs to read the book to Ava several times before she can begin getting her child ready for the school day.
“Usually that’ll be brushing her hair, brushing her teeth, changing her diapers, getting her dressed and then eventually heading downstairs so you can start making breakfast, which is almost always to the sound of ‘Wheels on the Bus,'” she said.
Villarreal elaborated on the challenges of her responsibilities while sitting outside of the playground on Feb. 1. In the middle of planning meetings, she recalled, she’d sometimes get a call that Ava had had a seizure. She would have to rush to the hospital, leaving others to carry on.
Asked about burning out, Villarreal took a deep breath. She nodded as if pondering times when she’d come close.
“My husband very strongly supported what I was doing. Every time I talked, there was also a wave of awareness and with each of those talks I’ve gained strength,” she said.
Villarreal’s own self-description comes down to one word: “Resilience.”
It’s a trait she inherited from her parents. They were refugees from World War II who came to the U.S. and started their lives over again, she said.
But layered upon that steely resilience is also a resolute and outwardly focused optimism.
Sitting on the far side of the footbridge over Adobe Creek that inspired the playground’s name on Feb. 1, Villarreal greeted visitors on their way to a musical concert at Magical Bridge, calling out to all, “Have a magical day!”
Magic times two
Magical Bridge has become a destination spot. About 30% of its 25,000 monthly visitors are from Palo Alto; 70% come from all over the Bay Area and the state.
In the year after the playground opened, those numbers and what they signified struck Asher. It was clear that more Magical Bridges needed to be built so that families wouldn’t need to travel so far to play, she said.
Asher decided to leave her media-relations position to focus on building the Magical Bridge Foundation in 2016 after she and Villarreal agreed to take the concept to the next level. They wanted a way to support programming at the playground and to advance their advocacy of intergenerational play and interaction.
“While it was incredibly lucrative, it was not as rewarding as Magical Bridge,” the soft-spoken Asher said of her high-tech career.
“I love what we’re doing. I feel like we’re making the world a little bit better,” she said.
Asked what makes the two of them tick, she said it’s perhaps best summed up in this observation: “Someone dubbed us ‘progress persistent.’ When we get rejected, we keep moving on.”
Asher also juggles the needs of her three children, who are in college, high school and elementary school. There are dance recitals and homework, after-school activities and just plain “mom” time, in addition to 50 to 60 hours a week dedicated to the Magical Bridge Foundation. On Feb. 1, she was making the rounds at the playground after having organized and publicized the concert.
Villarreal praised Asher’s marketing skills and dedication.
“I couldn’t do this without her,” she said.
Walking at Mitchell Park, Asher pointed out the city’s typical play equipment, which sits across the Adobe Creek footbridge from Magical Bridge.
“You don’t see anyone playing on this structure,” she said.
But a mere few hundred feet away, Magical Bridge was teeming with laughter, conversation and energy: grandmothers circling on a wheelchair-accessible spinner with their adult daughters and grandchildren; a dad in a mobility device pushing his son on a swing.
Like Villarreal, Asher’s desire to use play as a means to bring people together stems from her own experiences.
During an April 2019 Tedx talk at Los Altos High School, she said of her childhood: “One of my happiest moments was in my backyard on my swing set. My grandpa Saul and my parents, they built me and my brother a great big swing set. My brother and I would spend hours on our swing set. We felt like we were superheroes, swinging so high that we could touch the sky.
“What happened is that all the other kids in the neighborhood, they would come to my house and play on my swing. There were lots of kids. We’d take turns on the swings because there were only two of them. And when my grandpa Saul … would sit on my swing, a cigar in his mouth, … he would relive his childhood memories next to me on the swings.
“My backyard became a community playground, and it was a very magical place. I like to think of a playground as a metaphor for the type of community and society that we all want to live in. It’s one that stems from kindness and compassion, respect and dignity of everyone. It welcomes the body you were born into, the body that you are living in today and the body that you will live in in the future. It’s where friendships naturally form,” she said.
Asher, whose children are not disabled, also took an interest in universal playgrounds because of this belief in the importance of play to bring people together across the generations. People didn’t outgrow playgrounds; the playground hasn’t grown with people in mind, she said.
“I didn’t realize how many were left out until Magical Bridge opened,” she said. Now, she added, “I can see that people are a lot more aware to be accepting and kind of people with disabilities and to see them as a whole person.”
With Magical Bridge’s launch in 2015, Asher recalled, “So many people were hugging us and crying, thanking us for getting this playground open.”
Meeting all of the families solidified the importance of their work.
“We thought, ‘Now what do we do?'” Villarreal said.
Asher saw building other playgrounds as a call to action, Villarreal said.
Two generous donors gave them seed money to start the Magical Bridge Foundation; they received pro bono legal assistance to set up the nonprofit from Palo Alto law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; the Steckler family provided them with office space on Waverley Street in a building the family owns in downtown Palo Alto.
With four full-time staff members including Villarreal and Asher, the foundation today is helping to build new Magical Bridge playgrounds, including in Redwood City, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Morgan Hill and Santa Clara. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors wants to have a Magical Bridge playground in each of its five county districts and has given the foundation two $10 million All-Inclusive Playground grants to get the playgrounds started.
The Palo Alto Unified School District Board agreed to support some form of Magical Bridge playgrounds at all of its elementary schools, with Addison and El Carmelo elementary schools scheduled to open theirs in 2021, Villarreal said. Palo Alto’s Rinconada Park is also slated to get a scaled-back version of a Magical Bridge-type playground to replace its current equipment.
The foundation also has received requests from across the country and globe for help building similar playgrounds, including in Denver, Colorado; Singapore; Taipei, Taiwan; and Hong Kong.
Redwood City is scheduled to open its $8 million playground sometime this spring, weather permitting.
“We were really excited when Jill and Olenka approached us a couple of years ago. We are big believers,” said Chris Beth, Redwood City’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department director.
The funding partnership included $3 million raised by Magical Bridge Foundation — including $35,000 raised by Redwood City School District schoolchildren. The construction, which started in November 2018, is 70% complete.
Redwood City’s parks department will run programming with support from the Kyle Hart Memorial Fund, which is dedicated to the memory of Hart, a Palo Alto teacher and Redwood City resident who had a mental illness disability. He died in December 2018 during a confrontation with police while having a mental breakdown at his home.
Hart used to take his young son to the city’s Red Morton playground and eagerly anticipated Magical Bridge’s opening there, frequently checking on its construction, Redwood City’s website notes.
Palo Alto Landscape Architect Peter Jensen is involved with the Redwood City project and other up-and-coming Magical playgrounds. He redesigned the original playground in Palo Alto in collaboration with the original consultants, Royston Hanamoto Alley and Abey, the firm that designed Mitchell Park, when the costs needed to be brought down.
Magical Bridge “is by far the most satisfying thing I’ve ever designed and has the most impact,” he said. “I love working on parks. Magical Bridge is taking it to the next level. It has a much broader impact and that’s humbling.”
As Magical Bridge has evolved from a single playground idea to a concept of a 21st-century town square, so have Villarreal and Asher’s ideas for creating intentional communities. They’ve patented their slide landing. They are creating templates for universal playgrounds and offer consulting services to other communities.
They also are training the next generation of engineers in the concept of “intentional design.” Villarreal has spoken for the past six years to Stanford University engineering students in the Perspectives in Assistive Technologies course. Last week, a team from Intuit came to Magical Bridge playground to learn more about what they could do with inclusive design, she said.
Working on Magical Bridge has changed Villarreal’s view of the world in many ways, but she said two things stand out: First, “Don’t ever be discouraged by not having all of the (educational) degrees in place.” Second, “Now I’m even more painfully aware of how much needs to be done.”
After the long hours of working at the foundation, she said, “What keeps me up at night and busy is what can we do to open doors? It worries me about what isn’t being done.”
She and Asher are now working to get the city of Palo Alto to offer adaptive programming and classes through its Community Services Department. Currently, there are almost none.
“The effect would be transformative,” Villarreal said. “It says, ‘You matter, too.'”