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Zachary's Playground: Accessible fun for all kids

7:30 PM, Sep 14, 2010   |    comments
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Zachary Blakemore

By Mike Bush

Lake St. Louis, MO (KSDK) -- It's the one place where a child can feel more at home than home -- a playground. And on this day in Lake St. Louis, it would have been hard to measure the smiles per hour.

This particular playground is 10-year-old Zach Blakemore's favorite and it was built not with a hammer and nails, but with stubbornness and conviction.

"He just teaches you to get up and keep going," says Natalie Blakemore, Zach's mom. "It's amazing."

Zachary was born with a rare nervous system disorder called Pelizaeus-Merzbacher Disease. According to Natalie, it's a leukodystrophy, meaning the brain lacks a component called mylan. The disease is progressive and doctors told the Blakemores that Zach would never be able to stand on his own and likely wouldn't live past his 15th birthday.

"To have this take him eventually. I can't even. I try not to think about it," says Natalie.

There would be no counting the days; instead they were determined to make everyday count for their son. Much of the time, you can find Zach inside playing with his two younger sisters.

"Video games; he loves playing the Wii," says Todd Blakemore, Zach's father.

An outside playground used to be out of the question. They tried it once, but Zach didn't have enough trunk support to even be safe in a swing.

"I went home and cried and I promised I would never go back," says Natalie. "I was done with playgrounds."

But on a trip to Washington D.C. to visit family, they were taken to a playground that was truly accessible. Zach was able to get around in both his wheelchair and his walker.

"All of a sudden kids were interacting and playing with him and that had never really happened before," says Todd.

Even before they got back home, the Blakemores were already trying to figure out ways to bring that kind of playground to the St. Louis area.

"This disease has taken everything from my child and I could not give him anything back. I couldn't make his legs work. I can't make him speak better. But I found something I could give back to him," says Natalie.

Natalie went to work, making hundreds of phone calls, giving handshakes and fundraisers, with the hope of raising $750,000.

She even convinced the community of Lake St. Louis to donate the acreage.

"And I was so excited," says Natalie. "And Todd came home from work that day and I just said, 'We have land!'"

And four years later, the Blakemores turned an empty lot into a ribbon cutting ceremony on a place now known as Zachary's playground.

"We were able to watch the kids rush in," says Todd. "It was a great sense of accomplishment."

It was built with disabled children, like 11-year-old Gracie Gibson, in mind.

"It's a great way to bring people together," says mom Kim Gibson. "We're just amazed. We're really honestly amazed."

However, Zachary's Playground is a destination for able-bodied children as well.

"We come up here and he has freedom," says mom Lynn Schulte. "Actually, our whole family can come and have a good time."

The Blakemore's have started their own non-profit organization in the hopes of building accessible playgrounds all over the St. Louis area and then perhaps all over the country with a message that comes through loud and clear.

"To make life the very best you can no matter what your struggles are," says Natalie.

Apparently, with enough determination, there is no such thing as limitation.

For more information on the Blakemore's foundation, visit www.unlimitedplay.org.

KSDK

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