Justine Perkins shares the story behind the Touched by Olivia Foundation, its all-inclusive play spaces and its work in children's health and research.
In a stark white hospital room, it's hard to imagine feeling anything but fear, helplessness and pain. When we left the hospital the day our daughter Olivia died of lymphatic malformation, we couldn't help but feel for the families we left behind. We hoped their outcome would be different; that they would leave with their little ones in their arms. However, we knew the reality was that although many do, there are many who don't.
I knew there must be something else to our tragedy, some kind of silver lining. My husband, John, and I wanted to create a legacy in Olivia's honour that symbolised the life she had missed. In our short stay in hospital we had been touched by the many families and brave children we met, and we knew our efforts needed to revolve around children.
Within four weeks we had established our charity, which we called the Touched by Olivia Foundation. A strategy aimed at creating healthier and happier lives for children was devised, and we gave the foundation a beautiful butterfly logo made from Olivia's handprints. We knew Olivia's touch would always be with us.
When my first child was born, I joined a local mothers' group, and many babies between us later, we are still a tight-knit group. Playgrounds and play spaces became our meeting places, and we swapped stories about sleepless nights, settling, feeding and dealing with two year olds' tantrums.
Before Olivia fell sick, I read an article about an all-abilities playground in NSW. The article struck a chord with me for two reasons: it introduced the concept of play spaces that cater for children regardless of ability, and it highlighted that our children, for a variety of reasons mostly within our control, are getting fatter, sicker and sadder. Later, this article informed the nature of our foundation.
Naturally, we wanted to look further into the disease that took Olivia's life, so we formed a partnership with Sydney Children's Hospital to research and provide clinical assistance in the field of vascular birthmarks, the family of diseases that included Olivia's condition.
We also recognised there were many children who didn't or couldn't play, whether through sickness, accident, family circumstances or simple accessibility. Playgrounds seemed the perfect focus for us, and we felt it was up to our foundation to help change the state of play for all.
As a result, our strategy became two-tiered:
• Partnering with Sydney Children's Hospital on vascular-birthmarks research and clinical fellowship.
• Creating a network of inclusive play spaces around Australia.
Play Spaces: More Than Meets The Eye
Touched by Olivia opened its first Livvi's Place inclusive play space at Timbrell Park in Five Dock, NSW, in 2009. Its development involved many meetings with the local council and in-depth community consultation. We spoke to everyone, including the local community, playgroups, schools for children with special needs, parents of children with a disability, carers, grandparents, landscape architects, construction companies and corporate sponsors. We visited dozens of playgrounds, read dozens of articles and fundraised like crazy. A site was chosen at an existing local playground in desperate need of an upgrade. We shared our vision with the many people involved, and although we received some pessimistic responses, most of the feedback was helpful.
Play is a fundamental part of childhood, and according to the United Nations, it is a child's right to enjoy play and leisure. But there is so much to learn. Physical disabilities, coupled with childhood disorders, and the ever-changing demographic of stay-at-home carers, meant every detail needed to be considered if we were to be truly inclusive. It wasn't simply about plonking a Liberty Swing at the side of the playground and building a few ramps up to a slippery slide. It meant designing and sourcing custom-made, accessible and intergenerational play equipment and amenities, incorporating accessible pathways, passive areas, sensory and tactile play and artworks, graduated challenges, points of recognition and visual cues, fencing, accessible parking and bus drop-off zones.
Livvi's Place at Five Dock has become a valued community asset, and we now have Livvi's Place play spaces in Brisbane, and in Campbelltown, Dubbo and Ryde in NSW. We aim to have 10 inclusive play spaces around Australia by the end of 2013, with more than 20 in development.
Touched by Olivia was awarded the 2011 World Leisure International Innovation Prize for its national inclusive-play-space network, and the foundation is fielding more and more calls from communities wanting these kinds of play spaces.
Last year Touched by Olivia received a Federal Government grant to create a best-practice guide for people looking to build an inclusive play space. The foundation developed six simple guidelines, which are:
• Everyone can play
• Access to nature
• Total experience
• A connection with community
• Play independence – I can do it myself
• Friendship – social participation.
Touched by Olivia's commitment is to inspire, influence and include through play. Olivia would have liked that.
Justine Perkins is the founder of the Touched By Olivia Foundation.