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Hokies help create fully accessible beach park

Walking barefoot on the beach can be one of summer’s greatest pleasures, but propelling a regular wheelchair across sand is a nightmare.

   

JT's Grommet Island opened May 22, 2010, in Virginia Beach, Va. JT's Grommet Island opened May 22, 2010, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (Park photos by Marcus Holman.)

“It’s like pushing through mud – you just cannot go,” explained Linda Johnson, chair of the Virginia Beach, Virginia, Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities.

For people who use wheelchairs, like Johnson’s husband Stephen, a day at the beach can be a frustrating reminder of all they cannot do.

But, a new park in their city has expanded how the disabled, and their families, can enjoy the seaside. Virginia Tech alumni designed and helped build the park, called JT’s Grommet Island.

The park is named in honor of Josh Thompson, a young man who was active in Virginia Beach’s tourism industry and surfing community before his 2006 diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Thompson’s father is a prominent developer who came up with the idea for the park. Bruce Thompson said his son’s situation got him thinking about the challenges people with disabilities face in getting to the beach. That was driven home when he saw a young boy in a wheelchair sitting on the boardwalk, just looking out at the water.

“I said to myself, ‘Why can’t he go out there?’” Bruce Thomson recalled.

Not long afterward, Bruce Thompson spoke at a televised city council meeting. He suggested an accessible park be developed on the beach. Billy Almond, vice-president and principal in charge of the landscape architecture firm WPL, was watching the telecast.

“I witnessed a father speaking passionately about his son who had contracted this terrible disease, and I just felt compelled to help,” said Almond, a 1978 graduate of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. “This was a park. We’re landscape architects and this is what we do. By the time Bruce sat down, my text [message] was on his phone saying we would help design the park.”

   

Hokies involved in the project include, (from left) Mark Olmstead ’80, Stacy Gibson ’08, John Babb ’84, Diana Olmstead ’85, Jimmy Raynor ’91, Billy Almond ’78, George Clarke ’81, and Ross Vierra ’00. Hokies involved in the project include, (from left) Mark Olmstead ’80, Stacy Gibson ’08, John Babb ’84, Diana Olmstead ’85, Jimmy Raynor ’91, Billy Almond ’78, George Clarke ’81, and Ross Vierra ’00.

John Babb, who earned his finance degree in 1984 from what is now Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business, was also moved to get involved.

Babb lost a high-school friend to ALS, is a friend of Josh Thompson, and along with thousands of people had participated in earlier JT Walk & Beach Party fundraisers for ALS research.  

As president of the real estate development firm Ocean Consulting Inc., Babb was also well placed to serve as project manager for the construction of JT’s Grommet Island.

Building a park on a beach posed some challenges, but “none were insurmountable by any stretch,” Babb said. “We’re hoping there will be more parks like this, now that people can see ours and see how much people want to go out to the beach.”

The 15,000-square-foot park was built on city-owned land near a jetty between 1st Street and the 2nd Street ramp. An estimated $3 million worth of labor and materials, much of it donated, went into the park.

The park’s play equipment is highly accessible and spaced so that people in wheelchairs can pass unimpeded. Several ramps connect the park with the boardwalk, including one that offers a perch from which a seated person can view the water even if the beach is crowded with people.

The idea for that ramp came from 15-year-old Caroline Pennell of Chesterfield, Va., who has muscular dystrophy and advised WPL on the park design.

   

Caroline Pennell, whose mother went to Virginia Tech and brother is in the Class of 2014, advised the park's designers. Caroline Pennell, whose mother went to Virginia Tech and brother is in the Class of 2014, advised the park's designers.

“Kids or anyone in a wheelchair are so used to always being the shortest people there,” said Pennell, “So I figured it would be great to have a chance to not be the shortest -- to be up above people and be able to look out.”

At ground level, several walkways jut out from the park onto the sand, allowing people to get fairly close to the water. The park also has six specialized wheelchairs people can borrow to get out all the way to surf. The chairs’ giant, pneumatic tires roll easier over sand.

Babb said the park has been a popular attraction since it opened, and not just with children.

“I went down to the park one evening and there was a 90-plus-year-old lady in one of our beach wheelchairs down at the water’s edge,” Babb said. “When she learned I was involved in the park she grabbed my hand and said, ‘Thank you. That’s the first time my feet have touched the water in 25 years.’ That really brings it all home and makes you realize … it’s not just children with disabilities [who benefit from the park], it’s the elderly, it’s parents, it’s everyone coming together on the beach.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Albert Raboteau at (540) 231-2844.

Photo gallery

    See images from the May 22, 2010, opening of J.T.'s Grommet Island

See images from the May 22, 2010, opening of JT’s Grommet Island at the park’s website.

Giving back

    Billy Almond

Billy Almond, vice president and principal in charge of the landscape architecture firm that designed JT’s Grommet Island, is an enthusiastic supporter of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Learn more.

Building on the beach

    Building on the beach

Putting JT’s Grommet Island on sand, so close to the water, required several steps not typical to park construction. These included

  • Constructing a 6-foot-deep, concrete-and-steel foundation wall to prevent seawater from undermining the park;
  • Applying two coatings to the park’s equipment and using stainless steel hardware to bolt it together to prevent rust; and
  • Designing the park's shade-cloth covering to withstand 120-mph winds and for quick removal if a severe storm is approaching.

Providing input

Caroline Pennell discusses her suggestions for the park in an article from the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s research and health magazine.

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