During an evening marked by emotional, controversial subjects and contentious votes, the Roswell City Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution of support for Horizons Park, described as an all-inclusive park, Thursday night during a five-hour council meeting.
After sharing the all-inclusive park’s background, Elizabeth Gilbert, city’s director of administrative services, clarified that the city entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to allow the New Mexico Autism Society (NMAS) to raise $1,300,000 to purchase and install equipment for the park.
Gilbert said the estimated time for the group to raise the funds could range from three to five years, and that the Cahoon Park location may change. The General Services Committee voted (4-0) to recommend approval of the park on June 27.
After the funds are raised, Gilbert said the city and the NMAS will have to enter into a separate donation agreement, allowing the city take ownership of the equipment and take over maintenance of the park.
Four people signed up to speak in favor of the park at the meeting. Ruth Arias shared her upbringing with five brothers, one with severe autism, and the difficulty her single father faced. Arias said her family would visit an inclusive park in El Paso where her brother could play and be himself.
Arias now has a three-year-old with autism, Jacob Zaragoza, and said she has hope he will have “a high functioning and independent life” with therapies available in Roswell.
“Now tell me, council, please — can you say no to him, to this playground?” Arias asked as she held one hand on her heart and with the other held her son’s photo in the air. “Can you — with a clear conscience? Can you say no to me as a mama who is trying so hard to take care of him, entertain him, and love him? Could you say no to all the children with disabilities, mental or physical? And to this city, can you tell them no to this playground with a clear conscience? I say, please say yes to Horizons Park.”
Directly answering Arias, Councilor Juan Oropesa, mayor pro-tem, said there was “no way in the world he would not approve” the park. Oropesa encouraged outreach to other community entities about the all-inclusive park.
Krista Smith, a mother of three, with one son diagnosed with autism, said going to the park was focused on making sure her son was safe. Smith is a former president of NMAS and a current board member. Smith shared that in 2016 the Roswell Independent School district reported 1,751 students with disabilities were enrolled.
“This space will bring individuals of all ages together to interact and create new friendships,” Smith said “This will be a space in which therapists and educators can utilize … This would be a place for all. All abilities, all ages. A place to build lasting friendships where everyone is included, everyone is accepted, and everyone can play.”
Kerry Moore shared her support for the playground as well, asking for fairness in play spaces. She NMAS’ initiative was admirable and more people in the city should take this kind of action. A Chaves County resident, Kay Stein, said she faced difficulty in bringing her autistic grandson to parks and asked that the council approve the resolution.
Though he agreed with the project, Councilor Caleb Grant questioned city staff as to why the idea of the park was not communicated to the council sooner over the last four months — since the MOU was signed on March 28. Councilor Jeanine Corn Best also expressed frustration over the miscommunication but apologized to Smith for her initial response when she saw the park posted on social media.
In response, City Attorney Aaron Holloman said NMAS wanted the ability to start fundraising and that this was the appropriate time to bring it to the council and the public’s awareness. Councilor Savino Sanchez said he wanted to see action by the city in funding of park, and thanked city staff for their work.
As a special education teacher, Councilor Angela Moore said this park was overdue — and also encouraged reaching out to new Roswell ISD Superintendent Dr. Ann Lynn McIlroy. Moore said the proposed site at Cahoon Park is within walking distance of a school with an autism program.
Grant showed support for involving the school district as other southeastern New Mexican cities have. Oropesa said in Smith’s presentation at the General Services Committee meeting, she said partnerships with the schools were underway and he expressed gratitude for the project.
Councilors Best and Jacob Roebuck agreed this is a public-private partnership of the sort they would like to see more of in the city.
After the decision was made, Smith said she was very pleased, the amount of support was overwhelming, and she is ready to get the funds raised. Horizons Park has a designated Facebook page (@horizonsparkroswell) and Smith can be reached at email@example.com or at 575-840-4626.
City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.