Grant makes riverfront accessible for all

AWS Foundation presents $200,000 check to Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Two community partners are working together to make the city’s riverfront a destination for people of all abilities. Northeast Indiana is home to more than 45,000 people with disabilities. For many of them, getting to the rivers isn’t an option. But, a new grant will help change that.

The main focus of the river development starts on the Well Street Bridge and stretches down to the Harrison Street Bridge. By now, there have been announcements of all sorts of plans for the riverfront, but this grant means it will be far more than just handicapped accessible.

Born and raised in Fort Wayne, Jeff Paff has a lot to say about his hometown.

“He’s very opinionated, so he does have an opinion. He will tell you what he thinks,” Jeff’s mom Cathy Paff said.

Jeff’s parents know firsthand what it’s like to navigate around a city that hasn’t always accommodated their son.

“Until you’ve lived pushing a wheelchair, you don’t understand the complications that you run into,” Jeff’s dad Mike said.

Those complications are becoming fewer and fewer thanks to Thursday morning’s announcement.

“Our city is becoming more friendly to people with all abilities,” Jeff said.

Thursday morning, the AWS Foundation gave the Community Foundation of Fort Wayne a $200,000 check.The Lilly Foundation is matching 50 percent of the gift, bringing the total to $300,000 dollars.

“Certainly we’re not going to change the world with $300,000, but I believe this is the beginning truly of a significant change in our community,” AWS Foundation Board President Don Steininger said. “It is something that we really have to think through what does truly disabilities-friendly mean. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes it accessible for someone to come some place. You’ve got to make sure that when you get them there, they feel comfortable.”

“Some it will be used for planning, and we’re hopeful some of it will be used for actual construction of projects and activities,” President for the Board of Directors for Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. Chris Rupp said. “It’s a community project. It’s a community asset, and it has to be accessible to everyone. We don’t know what it will look like just yet. We’re not sure how it’s going to play out. We’ll obviously probably need more than the $300,000 that we’ve committed, so we will do ongoing fundraising efforts to come up with more , but we’ll just work together and listen to their thoughts and ideas.”

The attractions will not just accommodate people with disabilities, but make them feel truly included.

“It is something that we really have to think through what does truly disabilities-friendly mean. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes it accessible for someone to come some place. You’ve got to make sure that when you get them there, they feel comfortable,” Steininger said. “They feel like they’ve been invited. They feel like they’re a part. They feel like they’re accepted, and that’s really our focus. What can we do to make sure that after we get them there, wherever there means, whether it’s on a riverboat, whether it’s on the paths, whether it’s on a promenade, how can we make sure that they feel like they’re apart of the community in those various programs.”

Currents plans include a walkway along the north side of the river bank as well as two levels of docks.

“To make it accessible for them to get on kayaks, canoes, anything such as that to get on the water,” Steininger said.

As the south side of the river develops, AWS also hopes to build a center to employ people with disabilities.

“It’s going to take a small building, public restrooms, a place for selling tickets, and one of the things we would like to do is to make that as a place to employ disabled so that they will feel comfortable interacting with the public and being involved with people on the riverfront,” Steininger said. “There’s a definite economic impact to making it disabilities friendly. In addition to the fact that we know it’s the right thing to do, we think it’s just good business.”

The development is meant to not only include people with physical disabilities, but also those with intellectual challenges.

“This is not just physical disabilities. This is intellectual disabilities. It’s hearing impaired, it’s vision impaired. Whatever we can do to make all of those disabilities feel like they should be there. They feel like they should feel comfortable when they get there and they want to come back,” Steininger said. “The more you look at it, you realize that it’s not that difficult to make them feel included. It is simply a mindset.”

It’s that kind of development that makes Jeff and his family feel like they’re truly a part of the city they call home.

“People of all ages that have disabilities, they’ll be able to enjoy the rivers just like everybody else,” Jeff said.

“The sky is the limit. You know, who knows what they may decide to add and a few years, who knows what might be out there,” Cathy said.

Leaders hope to have the walkway and docks completed sometime next year. The promenade building is slated for construction in 2017.

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