- The BlueCross Healthy Place at Huntland City Park opened in September 2019.
- The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation invested $936,000 in the project — $780,000 for the park’s construction and $156,000 in a maintenance fund.
- The town initially requested a new playground, but the BlueCross Healthy Place also features a basketball court with bleachers, a walking track with outdoor fitness equipment, benches and grills.
- The space is now frequently used by community members of all ages and abilities.
The BlueCross Healthy Place in Huntland, Tenn. is a source of fun and adventure for Amanda Rigsby’s six children, but to her, it means a safe, all-inclusive play place is now close at hand.
“It’s really been a great blessing to have this in Huntland,” she says. “Before it opened, play time meant loading up six kids in the car and driving 25 minutes to the park in Fayetteville, only to find it’s really crowded that day.”
Revitalized space, new amenities
Huntland’s park, provided by a $936,000 grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, opened in September 2019 and includes a fully accessible playground for children of all abilities, a full basketball court with bleachers, a walking track with outdoor fitness equipment, picnic tables and an upgraded pavilion for family or community gatherings.
“Right from the start last September it was busy,” says Ann Gardner, Huntland’s vice mayor, who spearheaded the grant proposal. “It has been embraced, and used, by people of all ages, which is great to see.”
Children filled the playground with their parents watching from newly installed benches, young people played pickup basketball and everyone from young families pushing strollers to senior citizens getting their daily exercise filled the walking trail.
“There are some people who are paying attention to their own physical well-being who never thought about walking before in their whole lives,” says Huntland alderman Dr. Ellis Counts, whose wife, Sarah, was a park proponent. “There really wasn’t a place where people could get out and be active before. I talk to a lot of visitors to the park and know that they love and appreciate it.”
“People are out and walking and running as families a lot more, so we’ve been excited to see that change in our community,” says Debbi Daniel, who worked on the grant proposal with Ann and Amanda.
The effects of COVID
All the activity in the park came to a standstill earlier this year, though, when COVID-19 restrictions closed it, leaving the playground, walking path and basketball court empty most of the spring and summer.
But restrictions were lifted in late August and, with the help of city workers who frequently clean and disinfect park equipment, residents are enjoying their community space once again.
“The basketball court is very popular,” Ann says. “We desperately needed something for the older children, 12 and 13 years old and on up, because there’s nothing for them to do in our community besides school functions.”
A seldom-used pavilion at the park now has new life after the grant improved it and furnished it with picnic tables.
“That’s getting more use now,” Ann says, particularly now that COVID restrictions have been lifted. “People are calling City Hall to reserve it for family gatherings, birthday parties, community gatherings and that sort of thing.”
An inclusive park for everyone
The park is accessible to anyone, no matter their abilities, which was the plan from the very beginning, Ann says.
“We had a couple of people in mind when we wrote the grant proposal,” she says. “We wanted anything we did to be enjoyed by all.”
Before the BlueCross Healthy Place was developed, Huntland’s special needs children couldn’t play with others because of limited accessibility in the park, but they can now make friends and have fun on the inclusive equipment.
Ann thinks of one child in particular. “For her to be able to get outside and see other children and hear them laughing and playing and running, it’s amazing,” she says. “It would have been well worth our efforts even if it just benefitted that one child.”
Local children with mobility issues can enjoy the inclusive versions of playground favorites, such as swings, see-saws and merry-go-rounds.
“As a mom of children who have special needs — some of mine have sensory issues — they really love the spinning motion of our merry-go-round,” Amanda says. “With that and the see-saw, they can play on something they really like and other children can join in while they’re enjoying it. It’s been really great.”
Centerpiece of the town
The BlueCross Healthy Place has become a community gathering place — a centerpiece of sorts — in Huntland.
When a large fundraising and awareness walk for Alzheimer’s disease was canceled because of COVID, local participants decided to hold their own walk on the path at the park. The week before that, a cancer walk raised funds and awareness.
The local school regularly uses the park for field days with planned sports activities. “Before, we had hundreds of kids but very limited equipment,” Amanda says. “Now, they have expansive equipment and plenty of space to play. The school brings kids to the park in groups for 4-5 hours per day.”
And the Lion’s Club is planning a large Independence Day 2021 celebration with food, bingo, games, music and fireworks.
The BlueCross Healthy Place has definitely made a difference in her town, Ann says.
“It’s an amazing thing,” she says. “It’s hard to put into words what an impact an outdoor space can have in a community. And instead of loading up our kids or grandkids to drive to another town, we have this resource right down the street.”