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It's time to play! Willmar Destination Playground is officially open

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Briana Sanchez / Tribune Mya Morales, from left, Kiah Trevino and Layla Trevino hang onto the trampoline Friday at the Willmar Destination Playground. The girls' families came from Morris so they could play on the new playground at Robbins Island.2 / 8
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune Willmar Destination Playground Steering Committee co-captains Kathy Schwantes, from left, and Rachel Skredtvedt on Friday present Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin and City Administrator Ike Holland the key to the playground in the the ceremonial handover.3 / 8
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Kayla Bill rides on a swinging rope Friday at the Willmar Destination Playground.4 / 8
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Inaya Morales walks through the doorway mister Friday at the Willmar Destination Playground. Morales and her family came from Prinsburg to play at the new playground at Robbins Island.5 / 8
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Inaya Morales goes across the monkey bars Friday at the Willmar Destination Playground. Morales and her family came from Prinsburg to play at the playground.6 / 8
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Anneliese Nelson, 2, runs around the wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round Friday at the Willmar Destination Playground. Nelson and her family came from Colorado to visit her grandma who lives in Morris.7 / 8
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune Jennie-O Turkey Store President Glenn Leitch speaks Friday at the Willmar Destination Playground dedication ceremony in Willmar. Jennie-O gave the largest donation for the Robbins Island playground, $500,000.8 / 8

WILLMAR — With the ribbon cut and the horn sounded, the Willmar Destination Playground at Robbins Island opened wide for the children of Willmar and the surrounding region, bringing a celebratory end to a project that started just over a year ago.

"We're overwhelmed by the community's response. We succeeded because of them and because of you," said Rachel Skretvedt, Playground Steering Committee co-captain.

The grand opening celebrations will stretch over two days. Friday morning, the dedication ceremony took place, with dignitaries from businesses, governments and nonprofits taking part. At 1 p.m. Saturday, a second ceremony will be give those celebrating Willmar Fests a chance to be part of the playground's history.

"Today we celebrate all a community can accomplish. We were very fortunate to have the outpouring of support," said Sara Carlson, executive director of the Willmar Area Community Foundation.

The Willmar Destination Playground is the largest fully accessible playground in the five-state area, at just under 20,000 square feet. It is also the third-largest such playground in the United States.

"We didn't go out to break records, but that's Willmar for you," said Playground Steering Committee co-captain Kathy Schwantes, during a Chamber Connection gathering before the dedication Friday.

Throughout the site, there are swings, slides, a zip line, spider bouncer, monkey bars and even misters for those hot days. Children can also play on musical instruments, climb through a fantasy castle and pretend to be the conductor of a BNSF locomotive. All of these ideas, and so many more, came from the imagination of the children who took part in the Design Day conducted last summer.

The Liberty Swing, which allows those children in a wheelchair to experience the joy of swinging, came all the way from Australia. The merry-go-round, that is also wheelchair accessible, traveled from the United Kingdom. The plastic lumber that makes up the vast majority of the structures was manufactured in nearby Delano, and was created using 749,200 milk jugs.

"It could have been any one of the milk jugs we've drunk out of," Schwantes said.

Fundraising began in earnest during the fall and was given a massive boost by a $500,000 donation from Jennie-O Turkey Store. Jennie-O President Glenn Leitch said he hopes the playground becomes a gathering place for the entire community and that the donation was not from the executives or board of directors.

"It is really because of our 7,000 employees," Leitch said.

Two other large organizations that helped make the playground possible were Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Minnesota Super Bowl LII Host Committee Legacy Fund. The Willmar Playground was chosen by the Legacy Fund as one of 52 community projects statewide to receive a grant from the fund. The playground was given $100,000.

"I can't think of a better way to celebrate the health of the community than this incredible asset. The right to play is a fundamental right," said Dana Nelson, Super Bowl committee chair.

But even with these large donations, it was individuals and families which really made the difference. All totaled, over $900,000 was raised. A dedication and donor wall was unveiled during the ceremony, listing many of the largest contributors, but it also thanked those individuals.

"This wall cannot encompass every gift made. Every gift of every size matters," Carlson said.

But no matter how much money was donated, the playground would literally never have gotten off the ground if it wasn't for the 3,792 volunteers who took part during the pre-building, the community building event and afterward. Weather, whether it was hot and humid during the pre-build or cold and rainy during the community building event, didn't seem to dampen the spirits of those out to help.

"It was tough, but you guys came back. You don't know what that meant for our morale. We were building a community, that was the music, that was the magic," Schwantes said.

Following the ribbon cutting Friday, children raced into the playground, laughing as they found their favorite piece. The zip line had a line of excited kids while others raced through the castle and tree house. Those who worked tirelessly for over a year to make the playground possible hope this is only the first of many community-led initiatives to keep Willmar growing and successful.

"You are all rock stars. I couldn't be more proud of this community. Look at what we can do. There is nothing this community can't do," Schwantes said.

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