Path to inclusion

Oak Forest resident Gretchen Frauenberger, right, enjoys a sunny day at Oak Forest Park along with her daughters Emmery, left, and Maclaren.

The City of Houston's playgrounds reopened in late March after being closed for a year because of the pandemic, and that was good news for those ready to welcome the community to the first neighborhood-initiated inclusive playground in the city’s park system.

The Playground for All Abilities at Oak Forest Park was ready last fall. Now a new asphalt track will be constructed, making it easier for all to enjoy it.

The asphalt track will create a path around the park from the tennis courts to DuBarry Lane, looping around Piney Woods Drive to the pool area. Harris County Precinct 4’s Trailblazers, an in-house crew of specialists who repair, build and maintain trails, are scheduled to begin work on the trail in late May and if the weather cooperates, are expected to finish by early August.

Gretchen Frauenberger is the parent of two daughters, Emmery and Maclaren, and Maclaren has multiple special needs and is non-mobile and non-verbal. Frauenberger was instrumental in raising funds for the park, and according to Friends of Oak Forest Park chair Elyssa Horvath, was also a key player in the trail project, nicknamed “Mac’s Path.”

At the last Festival of Abilities in October 2018, Frauenberger talked to Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and Houston City Council member Mike Knox about the need for a pathway around the park. 

“Access to the park is extremely difficult when pushing a wheelchair or stroller,” Frauenberger said. “We live on Wakefield (Drive) and in order for us to access the park, we either have to take the street, meaning go down Judiway (Street), which is very busy, or roll through the tennis and basketball courts. Pushing a wheelchair or stroller through the grass is definitely out of the question for us.”

When Cagle told Frauenberger his precinct might have some funds to help, she followed up with an email to his office.

“Mac, as we call her, loves being outdoors and taking walks in the neighborhood,” Frauenberger wrote. “We are very fortunate that she is an extremely happy little girl.”

The track would not just benefit Maclaren, Frauenberger notes, but also provide easy access to the park for local residents and from every vantage point.

“Strollers and wheelchairs are much easier to maneuver on a hard surface,” she said. “My youngest has softball lessons at the park. I walk around on the street while she is practicing. Having a designated pathway, instead of walking through the grass, is easier and safer.”

Dennis Johnston, the parks director for Harris County Precinct 4, said Cagle has a special place in his heart for children with autism and was more than happy to get involved.

Cagle talked with Mayor Sylvester Turner about a partnership to complete the project between the city and Precinct 4. This week, the Houston City Council approved an interlocal agreement for the Trailblazers to get to work.

Johnston said the Trailblazer team started doing trail clearing, repairs and construction about 14 years ago and have worked on miles of trails.

“Our Trailblazers put down an asphalt trail using three basic layers, identical to road construction," he said.

He said their material costs run approximately $52 per linear foot and as they will be adding about 1,200 feet of new asphalt trail, the estimated cost is $62,000 for materials.

“Equipment and labor are brought to the table by our very experienced Trailblazer team and the design was done by Harris County engineering,” Johnston said.

Horvath said the Friends of Oak Forest Park community group is thrilled about the collaboration with Harris County at Oak Forest Park.

“Having a track was a community priority on our 2014 survey, and now it is coming to fruition,” she said.

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