Story of Impact: Waterford Connecticut Recreation and Parks Department

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on June 01, 2018 # Mobility, Quality of Life, Travel

For months, Kerry Sullivan watched people come to the Waterford town beach and sit at the edge of the boardwalk. Located in southeastern Connecticut, the town of Waterford purchased the beach more than 40 years ago, but due to environmental restrictions, the beach access requires visitors to traverse a variety of terrains.

“People with mobility challenges who could not negotiate the sand would have to sit and watch friends and family from a far,” said Sullivan, program coordinator for the Waterford Recreation and Parks Department. “We have a beautiful 1,500-foot, beach-front property that is open to the community yet many in the community had difficulty accessing it.”

With the town’s only beach wheelchair in a state of disrepair, Sullivan reached out the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Quality of Life Grants program in 2016 to fund two new beach wheelchairs. Beach wheelchairs are specially designed for moving through sand and other bumpy, unstable surfaces, and can be rolled into the water.

“We were thrilled to receive the funding to purchase two different chairs, a nimbler three-wheel chair that can float in the water and a larger, four-wheel chair with an umbrella,” said Sullivan. “We had a terrific response during our first June to September season with more than 150 uses by visitors ranging in age from 19 to 92 years old.”

One of the wheelchair users told Sullivan that it was his first time on the beach in 15 years. Another was thrilled to use the chair to get in and out of the water so he could leave his prosthetic on the shore. Although the summer was filled with good stories, one in particular touched Sullivan’s heart.

“A young dad who came to the beach with his wife and three children was sitting in his wheelchair on the boardwalk watching his family play in the water. When our lifeguards noticed him, they offered to help him transfer to one of the beach wheelchairs,” said Sullivan. “The dad was hesitant at first but his family was thrilled to have him with them on the beach.”

Later in the day, as the lifeguards helped the father get into the water in the chair, another father approached with his children and offered to take over assistance with the wheelchair from the lifeguards.

“The two men spent hours in the water chatting and playing with their young children,” said Sullivan. “Both dads were picking up the kids and tossing them in the water with the able-bodied dad putting the kids in the other dad’s lap to toss. I learned later that it was the first time the dad using the wheelchair had been able to get in the water with his children.”

The two families became fast friends, returning to the beach together a number of times and attending other events together. The father who used the beach wheelchair told Sullivan that he spent more time at the beach last summer than the last five years combined, and if it was not for the beach wheelchairs, the two families probably would never have met and become such close friends.

“So with the Recreation and Parks receiving the grant from Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation friendships were made,” said Sullivan. “In fact, we have received so much praise for having the chairs that several surrounding communities have reached out to learn how we got them. I see this as another success. Good news travels fast.”

Sullivan says that the wheelchairs have also opened their eyes to the need for greater accessibility. In addition to working on an endowment fund for future wheelchair repairs and replacements, the Recreation and Parks Department is raising funds to add beach mats to run from the beach entrance to the water.

“The mats would make it easier for anyone with a disability or who is unstable on their feet to reach the water and allow even more people to enjoy time at the beach with friends and family,” said Sullivan. “The Reeve Foundation was instrumental in getting this ball rolling and from the bottom of our hearts, we thank you.”