Passion for a Park
In Deltona, Florida, a city about halfway between Orlando and Daytona, there is a stretch of pristine wooded property thatcovers almost 40 acres, including 1,000 feet of shoreline on St. Johns River. Today, it is known as Thornby Park, home to an all-inclusive playground where special features make it possible for kids with disabilities to play alongside their non-disabled peers. Elsewhere in the park, residents and elected officials envision many more public uses for the land, like walking trails and maybe one day a botanical garden to take advantage of its many native plants, birds and other wildlife. Today, there is plenty of time to contemplate the possibilities.
A few years ago, however, that was not the case. Once owned by a wealthy New York family who used the land as their winterhome—a modest house surrounded by miles of tranquil beauty—the area that is now Thornby Park had been bequeathed to heirs who no longer wanted it. When the owners began lobbying for a land-use change that would make it possible to sell to developers for retail or multi-family use, many worried about the impact on the community. Local resident Sandy Walters was among them. “At the time, I was not politically active in any way, shape, or form,” she remembers. “But my opinions were what a lot of people feel—we need more open space, and we need to stop covering up Florida with pavement.”
Sandy organized a group, Friends of Thornby, made of up neighbors who shared her concern. “It seemed like everybody knew some different thing about the land,” Sandy says. “One person knew there was an Indian midden there. One had spent a lot of time there as a child and knew all about the historic trees and the duck pond that were there. Another knew about the bald eagle nest. We needed a lot of facts, because you can’t just go into a hearing and whine and say, ‘But it’s so pretty!”
That was in 2001. People on all sides of the issue agree that what ensued next was a contentious, nine-year battle over who would get to decide what would become of the land. Even near the end of the long process, while a deal was being negotiated for the city of Deltona and surrounding Volusia County to purchase the land jointly and turn it into public property, a cloud seemed to hang over the whole project.
Then one of the city commissioners, Zenaida Denizac, had an idea. Zenaida has a grown daughter, Yaitza, with cerebral palsy. Zenaida says that when her children were growing up, Yaitza was never able to play alongside her siblings because playgrounds were not designed to accommodate disabilities. Spurred by that memory, and after a personal visit to the property, she agreed to the creation of a new, all-inclusive playground in Deltona when the prospect of Thornby Park arose.
With its massive magnolia, live oak, and cypress trees, Thornby offered a lot more shade than other sites they had considered, but Zenaida had another reason to believe this was the perfect fit for the new playground: “Knowing this park had been such a political battleground, I thought, why not take a park that seemed to have the stigma of bad feelings and build something that could be a healing touch for everyone?”
The community embraced the idea, and the park received grant money for the playground’s construction, including a county recreational grant and a Volusia County ECHO grant, which is designed to help pay for projects of environmental, ecological, cultural, historical, or outdoor recreational value—criteria that seemed tailor-made for Thornby on all counts.
When Thornby Park opened to the public in February 2011, visitors had their first glimpse of the fully realized Inspiration Playground, which accommodates children with and without disabilities, including wheelchair ramps, raised sandboxes and other special features to enhance accessibility. Zenaida says it has quickly grown into one of the area’s most popular parks. Though her daughter is grown, she now brings her grandchildren to play here, and “It’s always packed,” she says.
For her part, Sandy calls the park “icing on the cake” after she and the Friends of Thornby worked so hard to keep the land use from being changed to high-density uses. Sandy even wrote a book about the process, “The Story of Thornby,” encouraging ordinary citizens to stand up for causes that are important to them. She and her husband, Roy,have also donated a gazebo to the park on behalf of Friends of Thornby and hope to dedicate it soon with plaques commemorating the park’s history.
“Writing the book and donating the gazebo were my way of leaving a road map for others, in case they care to explore how Thornby Park came to be,” she says. “It’s very important that this story not be forgotten.”
To visit Sandy’s website about the Story of Thornby, visit www.thestoryofthornby.com.
SANDY WALTERS is a Regions customer.