No one likes to face a room full of strangers but 11 months after Nicole Moran put her butterflies on hold to ask the Bakersfield City Council for more park playground equipment for special needs children, she's glad she did.
"I am a mother of a 4-year-old disabled child who has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and a rare brain malformation," Moran began on that night last February, reading from crumpled, water-stained notes now saved for a scrapbook.
She described how the only swing in Bakersfield that her daughter, Kylie, wouldn't fall out of because of her conditions was all the way across town at the newly renovated Central Park at Mill Creek.
Her words worked. The council invited her in to meet with Recreation and Parks Director Dianne Hoover.
Hoover listened and the two women pored over catalogs of playground equipment.
Today, Kylie has a swing at Saunders and Central parks and the playgrounds at Beale and Saunders parks -- which were due to be renovated anyway -- have new play equipment for special needs children.
At Saunders in southwest Bakersfield, a purple and green sit-in swing with a locking bar like that on a roller coaster sways alongside its more minimalistic brethren.
Nearby is an orange and purple, spring-cushioned, low-impact teeter-totter that won't give you that hard bump on the ground.
Elsewhere are so-called "talking tubes" -- long plastic tubes buried in the sand with their ends protruding, a redo on the old tin-can-and-string telephone.
Talk into one end and another child can listen on the other, then talk back.
At Beale Park is a new spinner similar to the old metal, kid-powered merry-go-rounds but has actual seats to keep kids from falling off.
Two earlier renovations also have a variety of features for special needs kids.
In southwest Bakersfield, Greystone Park has play panels -- vertical plastic panels with various tactile surfaces and educational tools like the alphabet -- as well as plastic bongo drums and other plastic shapes that make musical notes when thumped by tiny hands.
Central Park has a 100 percent "safety" or rubberized surface to cushion falls, in contrast with other city parks that are half rubber and half sandbox. It also offers play panels and, like many city parks, ramps up to play areas for children in wheelchairs or who might have difficulty climbing stairs.
The overall Beale Park renovations cost $154,000; those at Saunders Park cost $182,000.
New playgrounds currently under construction at Wilderness and Challenger parks in the southwest are budgeted at $231,100 and $183,500 respectively -- though a city official said each is expected to come in under budget.
The cost of Kylie's swing is between $2,500 and $3,000, approximately twice that of a more typical model -- but Hoover emphasized the deep significance of child's play.
"I think of playing as a child's job. It's important to a child's development. It helps develop social skills, a sense of balance, hand-eye coordination," said Hoover, who oversees 59 parks and two to three playground renovations per year. "Nicole did a great job. She explained her child's disabilities. It just opened our eyes."
Ward 7 Councilman Russell Johnson, who represents Moran and convinced her to visit the council that night, agrees.
"It wasn't like it was an exceptional additional cost. It was pay-as-we-upgrade equipment. Every child deserves a chance to play," said Johnson -- realizing as the last sentence left his lips that it's the slogan for League of Dreams, a nonprofit adaptive sports league for special needs kids.
The last 20 years have seen the arrival of the League and other groups. But while she praises the progress, Patricia Henson, executive director for Bakersfield's Society for Disabled Children, said more work is needed.
"I think we're kind of way behind the times," Henson said. "I do think that our understanding of special needs is changing as a society. I think people are more aware that these kids just want to be kids."
A slow but steadily rising awareness of special needs children, who Henson said account for 9 percent of Kern County students, has led to the founding of other recreational groups. For example:
* MARE Riding Center in west Bakersfield opened in 1990 to offer horseback riding for people with disabilities.
"People with disabilities are receiving better recognition as people and they're becoming better integrated into our society," said MARE's volunteer coordinator, DebbyKate Kroeger. "As they improve, it builds their self-confidence, their self-esteem. They see they can do these things and it gives them the confidence to do more."
* In September, Canyon Hills Assembly of God in northeast Bakersfield opened Champions Club and Big Champs, modeled after a similar facility at Lakewood Church in Houston.
It's a series of rooms offering play, sensory stimulation, education, games and worship for special needs kids and adults.
"The Bible specifically talks about 'the least of me.' You can't build a room for children and not have a room for children with special needs," said Pastor of Special Needs Robin Robinson. "We're talking, and we just know they're hearing us. They're hearing even though they're doing different things."
* League of Dreams, founded in 2007, offers baseball, basketball, bowling and swimming lessons for children with disabilities.
"It helps the kids a lot. Just being out there, the camaraderie on the teams," said Tim Terrio, founder of Terrio Physical Therapy and Fitness, whose special needs clients highlighted the lack of a sports league of their own. "The first couple (baseball) games, they didn't understand it. Now they've got the running-the-bases down pat. We even have kids in wheelchairs walking with assistance."
Kern County, too, has long been aware that its park playgrounds must be within reach of the county's more than 17,000 children age 0 to 17 who are identified as special needs.
Kern County Parks and Recreation Director Robert Lerude said the county started adding rubberized groundcover to its playgrounds in the early 2000s after the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated at least 50 percent of playground equipment be accessible to children of all abilities.
The county has met that requirement, according to Lerude. The city has not, but is working toward it.
The county is currently redoing the playground at Leeward Jackson Park in Ridgecrest after a request from three women for a special needs swing like the one at Saunders Park.
"That's actually the first time we even had a request, other than being able to get to the components, the kids in the wheelchairs," Lerude said. "That's kind of the next step we're headed to."
Understandably, Moran approves.
The mother of five said she feels vindicated, validated and amazed at the change in her fidgety, now-5-year-old daughter, who relaxes in the swing's mechanical arms and falls asleep.
"Her seizures shoot off all the time and for that to relax her, that's a really big deal. My friend's daughter is special needs also, and it calms her down, too," Moran said.
"When you're normal, you see a swing as just a toy to play with. For special needs kids who don't get to enjoy it, to get a chance, you can see what it means to them."