A grassroots effort to bring a fully inclusive playground to the Charlottesville area will continue under the auspices of a familiar organization. 

The Arc of the Piedmont will serve as the fiscal agent for Bennett’s Village, a campaign to build a playground that would be completely accessible to people with disabilities. The project is named after Bennett McClurken-Gibney, a Johnson Elementary School student who died in February at age 5.

“Living without our son doesn’t get any easier with the passing days — in some ways, it gets harder,” said Kara McClurken, Bennett’s mother. “But we are determined to build this playground, to continue his legacy of removing barriers to play and interactions between people.”

McClurken said Bennett’s Village has raised more than $60,000 since March and has received multiple offers of in-kind services, including architectural design work. 

McClurken said partnering with the Arc of the Piedmont would allow Bennett’s Village to share the Arc’s nonprofit status and gain access to more opportunities for funding and grants.

“I am hopeful that we will get some more volunteers and advocates that can help us take this project to the next level,” McClurken said. 

The Arc is a national network of nonprofit organizations providing services and advocacy to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Arc of the Piedmont operates in the city of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson.

“Our clients want to be able to do anything and everything that non-disabled people do — to get lunch or dinner with friends, to go bowling or hiking, or to play on a playground,” said Bryan Harris, director of development and community relations for the Arc of the Piedmont. “Sometimes, they need the Arc as a voice to get them there.”

John Santoski, Arc of the Piedmont’s executive director, said Bennett’s Village aligns with the Arc’s mission at the local, state and national levels.

“This playground would show the community’s support for everyone dealing with a disability, both children and adults,” he said. 

The Arc of the Piedmont has not committed to donating money or staff time to Bennett’s Village. However, it will share its expertise in working with local governments and institutions. 

Harris has volunteered to serve on the board of Bennett’s Village, and is helping to recruit additional board members. 

Harris said Bennett’s Village ideally would be built in an existing park in Charlottesville or Albemarle County, where public funds could be used to pay for the upkeep of the playground.

Santoski has directly influenced the development of parks and recreation facilities in Charlottesville as a member of the city’s Planning Commission.

“There are many interesting ways we can make this playground happen,” Santoski said. “It probably is going to be a public-private partnership; it’s just a matter of finding out how it fits into the larger picture.”

As an infant, Bennett McClurken-Gibney was diagnosed as having spinal muscular atrophy type I, a genetic disorder that causes muscular weakness and respiratory difficulties. 

Bennett’s favorite playgrounds were at the ARCpark, a 2.4-acre recreational facility in Richmond designed for people of all levels of physical ability. The Greater Richmond ARC opened the $3.4 million park in 2015. 

The ARCpark includes a treehouse accessible via a ramp, and platform swings large enough to fit children in wheelchairs and their friends. 

The ARCpark’s play structures are surrounded with rubberized mulch that provides enough traction for the use of wheelchairs and walkers. The park also offers charging stations for electric wheelchairs and a family restroom with an adult-sized changing table.

Brian Gibney, Bennett’s father, said he hopes Bennett’s Village will be a project of the same size and scope as the ARCpark. 

“We want to meet a wide variety of needs that are different from Bennett’s,” Gibney said. “We want for there to be something for everybody.”

Bennett’s Village will host its first organizational meeting from 6 to 7:30 p.m. May 29 in the Albemarle Room at Homewood Suites. The meeting is open to all, including children. 

Tax-deductible contributions may now be made to Bennett’s Village, payable to The Arc of the Piedmont, with the memo “FBO Bennett’s Village.” Checks may be mailed to The Arc of the Piedmont, Attn: Bennett’s Village, 509 Park St., Charlottesville, VA 22902.

Contributions also can be made at gofundme.com/bennetts-park.


Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.