The facility at Community Park in southeast Morgan Hill will accommodate all children

Photo by Robert Airoldi — From left, Pamala Meador and Peggy Martin with the MHCF; Ron Locicero; Chris Ghione, city of Morgan Hill public services director; Shirlee Locicero; and Nick Gaich, with the MHCF, which help raise nearly $73,000.

By Kaylee Arca

On the rainy day tour in March, Ron and Shirlee Locicero watched a construction crew use bulldozers to prepare soil for the Magical Bridge Inclusive Playground. The Morgan Hill couple stood with a group of residents and city staff admiring how far their dream had progressed since they proposed the idea to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission in 2014.

Morgan Hill file photo — Child help design the inclusive playground at a special workshop in 2016.

After the construction is completed soon, the Morgan Hill couple look forward to welcoming families to the playground. The journey will be well worth the wait as it will enhance the quality of life for many residents and visitors to the playground, they said.

Located in the heart of Community Park, the $6.1-million specialized playground is intended for people of all physical and mental abilities as well as age groups from toddlers to senior citizens. The park will have different areas providing special equipment for all abilities, including a musical area with a laser harp, a sandbox for children to have tactile experiences, a water fun area, spinning zone, toddler area, special slides and swings.

The Lociceros were inspired to create the inclusive play area seven years ago after watching a TV news story about the grand opening of Tatum’s Garden, an inclusive playground in Salinas. As retired educators, they were inspired to create a similar playground where South Valley children could find outdoor fun together.

“I think this will be a destination park,” Ron said.

He expects the playground to attract visitors from throughout the county and other locations. Visitors who come from other cities will also be encouraged to enjoy the rest of Morgan Hill, thus promoting tourism.

For his efforts to bring the inclusive playground to Morgan Hill, Ron received the 2020 Man of the Year honor from the Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce. The goal of the park is to create community, the Lociceros said.

“I just can’t wait to see the kids play in the park. I can’t wait to see the excitement,” Shirlee said.

The Lociceros want all children to feel included and be able to play together in a family-friendly environment. They worked closely with city staff to hire professional park designers and engineers during the early stages of the project. The playground received creative input from Peter Jensen, lead designer at Magical Bridge Foundation, to create a wonderful playground for the community. The couple also visited elementary schools in Morgan Hill and Gilroy to chat with the students about what kinds of fun activity equipment they wanted to enjoy.

“We had the kids help choose what went into the park,” Ron said.

The Lociceros also worked for years with a team of community members to raise the necessary funds for the project. They received a $2 million grant from Santa Clara County. About $300,000 in donations came from families and local businesses. The Lociceros also worked with the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s current board president Claudia Rossi and others to find $200,000 to build an outdoor classroom at the location. The city of Morgan Hill contributed a $2-million grant and donated the playground’s land. The original price tag of the project was estimated at $5 million. Added components made the final cost about $6.1 million.

Morgan Hill Life file photo
Ron and Shirlee Locicero in front of the sign at Morgan Hill Community Park where the Magical Bridge Playground is being built.

“Overall, it’s an incredible project,” said Yat Cho, the project managing engineer. “It’s got to be the biggest park we’ve built for the city,”

The Lociceros have carefully watched over every aspect of the project and reached out to the community for ideas to make the best playground possible to suit the needs of everyone.

“Every single detail of this park was really tended to by two seasoned, life-long educators,” Rossi said about Ron and Shirlee’s labor of love.

The city of Morgan Hill held inclusive playground committee meetings during the planning stage of the project.

“The Inclusive Playground Committee was made up of Morgan Hill residents, several who have children with disabilities,” said Chris Ghione, city of Morgan Hill’s public services director.

Ron and Shirlee focused on the outdoor classroom amphitheater. They are excited for students to use this facility and hope teachers will bring students to the classroom and playground for field trips.

“(Students) learn more, they remember more, and they have more fun in an outdoor classroom,” Ron said.

Ron and Shirlee believe the outside classroom will be the most vital area of the park for education. The couple spent years researching the impact of learning outdoors. They brought their findings to the Santa Clara County Board of Education to highlight the importance of outdoor educational spaces.

“I believe that the school, outdoor classroom, will be an example for other communities,” Shirlee said.

The outdoor classroom will have a drinking fountain, sound system and lighting for teachers. The playground will also have free WiFi for students to do schoolwork. Cameras around the park will connect to the Morgan Hill Police Department’s dispatch center for added safety of users and to prevent vandalism, Ghione said.

“Ron’s vision really pointed out that children learn everywhere,” Rossi said. “Children learn inside the classroom and children learn out in nature. . .  The definition of where education happens is expanded by a project like this.”

The Lociceros had hoped the inclusive playground would be open in spring 2020, but they faced challenges along the way with finances, COVID-19, and inclement weather. The virtual groundbreaking event took place in July 2020.

“The city was experiencing a shortage of funds, so it was going to be difficult for them to (gather the money) all by themselves,” Shirlee said. “Community support is encouraged.”

Eventually, the Lociceros and their team collected the funds to complete the project. Now, the city of Morgan Hill is looking for donations for park maintenance. Ghione estimates about $50,000 annually to will be needed to maintain the park.

The COVID-19 pandemic also presented challenges because workers needed to follow more stringent health regulations to avoid catching the virus.

“The pandemic kind of slowed us down,” Cho said. “With everything that was going on, they needed to have smaller crews, or if they had an issue of a potential COVID case then the job stopped.”

After years of hard work, the playground is now coming together and getting ready for a late summer opening. The project’s organizers can’t wait to see kids playing on the equipment.

“It’s going to be a place that welcomes everyone in the community,” Ghione said. “This park will be not just for Morgan Hill but all of South County.”

Kaylee Arca, a 2017 graduate of Sobrato High School, wrote this story as a class assignment for San Diego State University Journalism and Media Studies. It was also published online with JMS Reports.