By SOPHIA BRANDT
Capital News Service
LANSING – Three more Michigan state parks will receive all-terrain wheelchairs this summer to make parks more accessible.
They include Wilderness State Park in Emmet County, Warren Dunes in Berrien County and North Higgins Lake in Crawford County. That brings the number of state parks that have at least one of the chairs to 14. Some have two or even three, including Holland State Park, Grand Haven State Park and Ludington State Park.
These chairs can go through water up to 8 inches, drive over sand and other terrain a typical wheelchair could not get through.
Track chairs range in cost, typically between $15,000 to $20,000, according to Action Trackchair, a Minnesota-based manufacturer.
Most chairs have been donated or bought through fundraising efforts for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources parks and recreation department.
The park system’s first five track chairs were donated in 2016 by Kali’s Cure for Paralysis Foundation, an organization founded in 2008 to fund spinal cord research at hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
“The parks were not only the best way to reach the largest number of people, but also make them accessible to people who might never have had a chance to experience the outdoors or even enjoy an afternoon at the park with their family,” said Kali Pung, co-founder of Kali’s Cure, based in Alma.
Kali’s Cure was founded after Pung’s diving accident in 2006, causing her paralysis. The foundation sets out to help others in similar situations as Kali.
Island Lake Recreation Area, located in Brighton, has one track chair donated in 2019. Staff will transport the chair to any parking lot in the recreation area, allowing the use of this chair to be easier.
“We hope it allows people to more actively experience our great park,” said Tony Pitts, who led the effort to donate the track chair to the recreation area on behalf of the Friends of Island Lake. “The chair has been consistently used since we donated it, and those who have used it rave about the experience.”
The chairs give people the ability to see more of the park and do more whether that is a stroll through nature or going to the beach, he said.
These features allow more people to experience Michigan’s parks.
“We just want everyone, whether you’re visiting or living here, injured, older or younger, we want everyone to enjoy the outdoors,” said Marianne Hunderman, executive director of Lori’s Voice, a nonprofit organization in Coopersville working to help young people with disabilities. Lori’s Voice donated a chair to Grand Haven State Park in 2021.
Making life more accessible to kids is Lori’s Voice’s passion, Hunderman said. Chairs like the one donated to Grand Haven State Park are able to be on sand and low levels of water, making them a great way to enjoy the beach.
Jane Eppard, executive director of the Family Hope Foundation, a nonprofit based in Jenison, said her group donated two chairs to Holland State Park.
“It brings people joy and independence, which is very important,” she said. “It allows them to experience the park in a way a person with mobility challenges would not be able to do, especially not with their family.”
One of the biggest prohibitors of putting these chairs in parks is price.
“We’d love to donate another chair, though raising $15k is a bit of a challenge for our small-but-mighty organization,” Pitts said.
The high cost keeps them from being in all Michigan parks.
When paying camping costs, you are asked if you would like to donate an extra $2. Some of that money, along with other fundraising, helps pay for track chairs and other forms of accessibility, said Michelle O’Kelly, of Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s Parks and Recreation Division.
These three new chairs will help people in Wilderness State Park, Warren Dunes and North Higgins Lake experience the parks alongside family, or gain an independence in adventure.
“In the last couple years, we have seen increased awareness and use of the chairs donated to the parks and are considering additional chairs,” Pung said.“The main benefit is accessibility but with accessibility comes opportunity, freedom, therapy, athletics and a sense of normalcy.”