By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU – On May 21, a group of organizers determined to launch an all-inclusive playground on the city’s far west side will be one step closer to making their dream a reality when they hold a ceremonial ground-breaking at the site.

The date was not chosen at random. May 21 would have been the fifth birthday of the little boy who inspired the project, Josiah “JoJo” Hoerter. But JoJo won’t be there to celebrate; he died two years ago of a rare genetic disorder, leaving his family and all who knew him devastated.

But JoJo’s parents, Patrick and Destiny Hoerter, have found a way to channel their grief into something positive for the community. To honor their son’s memory, they have spent much of the past two years designing and advocating for a community park JoJo himself would have loved to play in.

JoJo’s Jungle, a revolutionary all-inclusive playground, is planned for an acre of land within Brockmeyer Park on Stettin Drive in Wausau. The playground is uniquely tailored to what all children want to feel and experience during outdoor play: fair, included, smart, independent, safe, active and comfortable.

While most children can enjoy all of Wausau’s playgrounds, they are largely inaccessible to children with disabilities and can even be dangerous. Wheelchair wheels can be easily caught on uneven surfaces, for example, and gravel can be difficult to manage for children who are not steady on their feet. An all-inclusive playground incorporates features most parents aren’t forced to think about: ramps for wheelchair access, smooth surfaces to prevent and cushion falls, or swings with high backs for children who can’t easily support themselves.

Taking Josiah to playgrounds was a nightmare at best and sometimes, with his condition, life threatening,” Patrick Hoerter said. “We want parents who bring their children to this playground to feel free to relax and have fun.”

All-inclusive playgrounds promote enriching play experiences for children of all ages and abilities, and even adults with or without disabilities. They also make a fundamental statement about how a community values its people, said Patrick Hoerter, who designed much of the playground himself.

“This isn’t just a want,” he said. “This is a need. It says something about Wausau and how the city cares about the community.”

The project could also have a positive impact on tourism, Hoerter said.

Plans for the playground include a splash pad, four zip lines, two picnic areas, a boat that rocks as if it were in water and a feature that allows children to pump water through a series of troughs, all with places for parents to relax and watch their children at play.

But the $2.4 million playground won’t become a reality until enough money is raised to formally break ground, Hoerter said. The project last year was awarded a $1 million grant from the B.A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation in Wausau, but needs hundreds of thousands more before construction can begin. The groundbreaking ceremony planned for May 21, which will also include a birthday party for JoJo and other events still being finalized, is meant to show the Hoerter’s ongoing commitment to the project, Patrick said, but won’t be the actual start of the playground’s construction.

Friends of JoJo’s Jungle, the advocacy and fundraising group led by the Hoerters, has raised about $1.25 million so far. Inch by inch, Patrick Hoerter said, the group is edging toward its goal. But the going hasn’t always been easy.

As we grieve the loss of our son, we realize he will not play at this playground; but his memory will be there in every aspect of the design,” Patrick Hoerter said. “We are in this thing for the long haul.”

How to help make JoJo’s Jungle a reality

Financial contributions can be made at the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin online.

USA Today Networks is holding a national Community Thrives contest for grants of either $50,000 or $100,000. Three applicants in each category will be chosen. Vote for JoJo’s Jungle here, once each day through May 12.

Engraved pavers and benches are being sold, ranging from $125 to $1,500. Review the choices and order pavers here.

Learn more about JoJo’s Jungle on their website and follow JoJo’s Jungle on Facebook for project and fundraising updates.