Funding enables third Operation Hope playground
Herald Progress | February 6, 2014

Herald Progress, Funding enables third Operation Hope playgroundThe efforts of one local organization to ensure disabled children have access to local playgrounds will extend to Courthouse Park this spring.

Operation Hope recently received the last bit of funding it needed to complete its vision in Hanover County. Last week David Nigrelli, of the Greater Richmond Civitan Club, presented Operation Hope cofounder Dana Nelson with a $30,000 check.

“This money here will bring us to a total of $350,000 that was raised for these parks,” Nelson said.

Operation Hope was established in 2004 by Nelson and Katie Stilwell, a former employee of Nelson’s at Commonwealth Wholesale and a student at Christopher Newport University, who was interested in getting involved in a community project.

Nelson recommended she visit the Katie and Friends all-inclusive playground in Chesterfield and Operation Hope grew from there, with Stilwell helping raise the initial funding.

Operation Hope broke ground on its first playground at Pole Green Park in 2007, later adding another at Poor Farm Park. Both all-inclusive sites were in use by 2010.

Originally, Nelson said his group wanted to expand its current playground at Poorfarm Park in Ashland. But in talks with the county’s parks and recreation department, Nelson was informed that the funds would be better utilized at Courthouse Park off of Route 301 because the Poor Farm site was being underused.

The Mechanicsville and Hanover Rotary Clubs were heavily involved in construction and fundraising for the first two parks. The Civitans are the latest service group to help with Operation Hope.

“The overwhelming amount of community involvement has been tremendous,” Nelson said.

Nigrelli said his club’s roots go back to 1923 and is a local chapter of Civitan International, a community service group with an emphasis on helping those with disabilities.

Nigrelli added that the Civitans are a “very hands-on organization” and his club looks forward to breaking ground on the project in early spring.

Funding came through Civitan’s Chesapeake District Foundation, which covers clubs throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Nigrelli said that after he learned how close Operation Hope was to its final fundraising goal, he urged his club to “step up to the plate to do something.”

“Our club is very small, we do not have much in the bank, but the foundation allows clubs to submit grants for projects that benefit the community, in particular, those with disabilities,” he said.

Funding was approved late last year, one of the largest grants awarded by the foundation, Nigrelli said.

For Nelson, the grant brings to a close a 10-year effort to improve the lives of children with disabilities.

“It’s taken 10 years and its great to see it come to a close,” Nelson said. “It really couldn’t have been done if it wasn’t for the involvement of so many people.”


Local Rotarians support Operation Hope playgrounds
Herald Progress | April 21, 2010 | By Dan Sherrier

Local Rotarians support Operation Hope playgroundsMembers of the Hanover and Mechanicsville Rotary clubs came together at Poor Farm Park Sunday afternoon for a brief ceremony honoring a recent project-the construction of two all-inclusive Operation Hope playgrounds in Hanover County.

Two Hanoverians-Dana Nelson and Katie Stilwell-founded Operation Hope in 2004 with the intent of developing two playgrounds that could serve children with disabilities. One would be at Pole Green Park, and the other at Poor Farm.

Ground was broken for the Pole Green playground in November 2007, and since then, the initial phases of both playgrounds have been completed and are in use by local children.

The Hanover and Mechanicsville Rotary clubs were major fund-raisers for the effort. Among their fund-raising activities were the first two annual joint Mechanicsville and Hanover Rotary golf tournaments.

At Sunday's event, club members presented Nelson with a ceremonial check for $150,000, representing the clubs' contributions to the cause.

The afternoon also featured several speakers, including Board of Supervisors Chairman Ed Via.

Via thanked the two Rotary clubs "for all the blood, sweat and tears they put into putting all of this together for the handicapped children of Hanover County," he said.

Stan Thorne, assistant director of Hanover Parks & Recreation, made a few remarks.

"These playgrounds without question are the most popular amenities within our parks system, and without everyone's support and all involved, they would not have happened this soon or this easily," Thorne said.

"These will be enjoyed by park patrons for many years to come," he said.
Mechanicsville Rotarian David Fuller, who emceed the ceremony, provided background information on the project.

"[Nelson and Stilwell's] inspiration was drawn from the some 2,500 children in our county who have no access-as did other children-to a regular playground, or to be able to play with their peers as any other child," Fuller said.

"Fund-raising began with appeals to individuals, businesses and civic organizations to raise $300,000. In 2007, the Rotary clubs of Hanover and Mechanicsville undertook an extraordinary project to raise $60,000 for Operation Hope, to propel the first phase of the parks and installation with volunteer labor and to provide the framework," he continued.

Canova Peterson of the Hanover Rotary Club said that the latest phase completed was the installation of sidewalks to make the playgrounds even more accessible.

Peterson pointed out the Rotary emblem engraved in the sidewalk to the Poor Farm playground. He noted that the emblem represents neither the Hanover or Mechanicsville club specifically, but rather Rotary International.

"What we want this symbol to represent is not just Rotary but the motto of Rotary. Rotary's motto is a very simple motto: 'Service above self,'" Peterson said.

"We want to dedicate it to all the people, all the men, the women, the children who have been raising funds and working very hard to make this dream real. So when people come to these playgrounds, we hope that they will see the stone that we're dedicating today and see and remember the service above self, remember those who had worked so hard to bring it to fruition and hopefully be inspired to do the same."

Mechanicsville Rotarian Harold Padgett presented plaques that will be installed on benches at the two parks, which will honor the late Rotarian Billy Dixon, who passed away in 2004.

"Upon his death, the obituary listed three different areas where contributions could be made, the first one being Mechanicsville Rotary Club, and so I'm happy to say that we had over $2,000 contributed to that memory in the weeks after that," Padgett said.

"Of course, we had no idea exactly what to do with the money at the time, but it didn't take very long because Dana Nelson and Katie Stilwell came before our club and made a talk of Operation Hope, their dream of it, in early 2005."

Padgett continued, "Something clicked in my head at the time. I said, 'That's it. That's going to be Bill's memorial.' And so the club agreed with that, and while it's taken a few years to get to this point, nobody ever strayed from the goal."

Mechanicsville Rotarian Brenda Cowlbeck and Hanover Rotarian David Ellington presented the honorary check to Nelson.

"Without the Rotaries, the children wouldn't be enjoying the playgrounds today," Nelson said.

"This did start in my office, but I was only a part of it. It started because a very special young person, a college student- she was looking for something that would touch the lives of others here in Hanover County," he said, referring to Stilwell.

"Katie Stilwell was the one who initially reached out to businesses, individuals to start the things rolling," he added. "Of course, it wouldn't be the reality it is today without so many people, especially the Rotary, and I am so thankful. ... I've had some very, very special people communicate to me that it's touching lives, it really is."

Fuller outlined the next steps of the project. "Within a few weeks, we will be starting the final phase of equipment installation at Pole Green Park. We expect to close that final effort with a dedication ceremony at the park on an equally beautiful weekend afternoon in a few months," he said.


Cool Spring Elementary School Raises $3k with a 5k Family Fun Run to benefit Operation Hope Playgrounds

Cool Spring Elementary School Raises $3k with a 5k Family Fun Run to benefit Operation Hope PlaygroundsMechanicsville, Virginia. The sun was shining on the Cool Spring Elementary School community on Saturday May 9th at the first annual Dolphin Dash.  Stephanie Jones, Race coordinator, and teacher at Cool Springs commented that the success of the run was due to the focus being on promoting health and fitness and family fun for a good cause rather than trying to attract competitive runners.  This inaugural event raised over $3,000 for Operation Hope Playgrounds, a community effort to build all inclusive playgrounds in Hanover County.  The event attracted 436 participants within school community.  Many Cool Spring staff actively participated in the planning and made this event a well run, fun event for all. One parent commented that this run gave her family an incentive to run together in the weeks prior to event.  Last year the Cool Spring Elementary School PTA held a successful art auction benefiting Operation Hope Playground.  Running events included a 5k family run around the school campus and grade level heats of 1 mile fun run.  PE Teacher  Renee Culley mapped out the 5k route. Community support also came from wellness sponsors including:  Jen Dowda – Play Tennis, Jackie Taylor, Transition Lifestyle coach, Hanover Lacrosse, I9 Sports, and Master Cool Spring Elementary School Raises $3k with a 5k Family Fun Run to benefit Operation Hope PlaygroundsCho’s Tae Kwon Do.  Scott Dietrich volunteered his talents as race announcer.   A bake sale, 50/50 raffle, and clowns who provided face painting and balloon sculpture helped raise the donation total.   Dana Nelson, co-founder of Operation Hope Playground was present and announced the start of the race.  The community spirit and desire to help get these playgrounds built was evident in all who participated.  Operation Hope All Inclusive Playgrounds are located at Pole Green Park in Mechanicsville and Poor Farm Park in Ashland.  Cool Spring Elementary School Raises $3k with a 5k Family Fun Run to benefit Operation Hope PlaygroundsMonies continue to be raised for completion of phase two of the playgrounds to include another level of ramp access, additional ground level play equipment and additional bay of swings for families to enjoy.  The poured rubber surface, adapted swings, and ramp access provide opportunities for children and adults with mobility issues to enjoy the playground with their friends.  For more information about how you can get involved with this community, playground effort please contact Dana Nelson at 550-2280.


Hanover Inspires

In January of this year (2008) Dana Nelson received a telephone call from Marshall Hudson, Board Chair of CASE CARES, a vision of CASE Credit Union. Marshall said that they had been following our website for some time and they were very inspired by the involvement and support of so many people, businesses, and civic groups for Operation Hope.  He felt that it was a community coming together for this project and they wanted to do very much the same in their metropolitan area – he was calling from Lansing, Michigan.  He and Dana exchanged some thoughts and ideas, and he was referred to Dave Fuller who helped with an implementation plan.  In the following months they brought together their Board of Directors and advisors/consultants, and now as of June 2008 they are making plans to move ahead with the first of a number of playgrounds of all abilities.

Thanks for giving us the opportunity.


All-inclusive playground now open
Polegreen Park facility allows all to play, regardless of challenges
H-P Staff Writer


A playground for all children is now open at Pole Green Park, thanks to a community-wide effort begun by Operation Hope.

Dana Nelson and Katie Stilwell founded the nonprofit organization four years ago with the intent of constructing two handicap-accessible playgrounds in Hanover County.

The first one officially opened last weekend following a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Hanover Parks & Recreation Director Greg Sager was one of several speakers at the ceremony. He stated, "On behalf of Hanover County Parks and Recreation, we gratefully accept this incredible donation to the park.”

All-inclusive playground now open
A group of 10 participants cuts the ribbon, including Operation Hope founders and supporters, Rotary presidents, and other public officials. Once the speeches were made, the play began.
(H-P Photo by Dan Sherrier)

Sager added, “I guarantee you we will treat it as it as if it was just absolute gold. For us it is.”
Art Carroll, director of a Knights of Columbus organization known as KOVAR (Knights of Virginia Assisting the Retarded,) presented Nelson and Stilwell with a plaque.

“To have something like this come to fruition, you have to have a passion, and I have been privileged to do the grant review with Dana and I know Katie from a long time ago. They have the passion. That’s why this was successful,” Carroll commented.

All-inclusive playground now open
Opening Day visitors got an opportunity to try out the new park’s equipment.
(H-P Photo by Dan Sherrier)

“God bless people like this who do the work that they do to help God’s special people.”
Del. Chris Peace of Mechanicsville said during the ceremony, “I think it’s more than a playground. It’s really a symbol of what we can do when we work together to get out of our comfort zones and serve others. …

“Now all children of all abilities can participate fully in the joy of just being a kid. … Today Hanover County is a brighter place because of Katie and Dana and all of the public and private partners that helped make this playground, this symbol of hope and togetherness a reality.”

Peace presented the Mechanicsville and Hanover Rotary clubs with a General Assembly joint resolution, commending the organizations for their contributions to Operation Hope.

Nelson was the last to speak. He said, “It is all of you, the people of Hanover County, who have come together to make this a reality. … This is a community project, and it is all of you who make it a reality.”

A groundbreaking ceremony for the second all-inclusive playground will be held at Poor Farm Park at 3 p.m., Saturday, April 19.

All-inclusive playground now open
Opening Day visitors got an opportunity to try out the new park’s equipment.
(H-P Photo by Dan Sherrier)


Ground broken for all-inclusive playground
(Herald-Progress, November 19, 2007 Covered by DAN SHERRIER)


Five shovels dug into the dirt at Pole Green Park Saturday afternoon, marking the beginning of the construction process to build Hanover County's first handicap-accessible playground.

The playground has been the goal of Operation Hope since the nonprofit organization's inception by Dana Nelson and Katie Stilwell in 2004.

Components of the all-inclusive playground include: a rubberized surface, hard enough for wheelchairs to travel on but soft enough to protect children who stumble; swings children can be securely strapped into; ramps to make slides wheelchair-accessible; and more.

Ground broken for all-inclusive playground
From left, Teelo Rutledge, Chuck McGhee, Stella Harden, Katie Stilwell and Warren Rice dig in during ceremony.
(H-P Photo by Dan Sherrier)
A second, identical handicap-accessible playground is planned for Ashland's Poor Farm Park next year. Each playground costs over $100,000 to construct.

Numerous donors made the Nov. 10 groundbreaking ceremony possible, including a mix of private individuals, businesses, and civic organizations.

Among those organizations were the Hanover and Mechanicsville Rotary Clubs, which took part in the ceremony.

Dave Fuller, representing both rotary clubs, served as master of ceremonies for the event.

"We are here today to realize the dream," Fuller told a crowd of dozens. "We are here today to make a historic presence, for this is the first time that citizens have poised to assure that all children have access to childhood, regardless of ability or limitations. It is a time for children to be children."

Henry District Supervisor Chuck McGhee commented, "I am just so pleased that we are blessed with citizen groups, civic associations and people who are willing to go that extra mile so that collaboration not just becomes talk, but it turns into a reality."

Greg Sager, director of Hanover County Parks & Recreation, spoke next.

"As we gather today for this very exciting event, I am struck by the potential that this playground has not just for today's youth but for future generations," Sager said.

"Certainly everyday across this great nation, thousands of children are born, and of that number, there are a very select few special ones that come into this world, and these children, they're no different than any other child. They love, they learn, and they play, and the parents of those children are no different than any other parent.

"They want their children to enjoy every opportunity of their childhood, and to see and know the disappointment that those parents experience when they go to a park, and they go to a playground, and they see it's only for certain kids to play on, I think it just reinforces to them the challenges and the obstacles that they [and] their kids are going to endure, and with that I am extremely grateful to the effort of the officers, the volunteers, the donors and everyone associated with Operation Hope in removing that obstacle to having kids just be kids.

"I think it is wonderfully appropriate that this new playground will sit adjacent to the existing equipment that we already have here at Pole Green so that future generations of children play together, learn together, and enjoy the experiences of childhood together."

Stella Harden, a 4th-grade student at Rural Point Elementary School, addressed the crowd.

In an interview after the ceremony, Nelson credited Stella with increasing community interest in Operation Hope's mission. Stella took the initiative to hold a yard sale to raise funds for the playgrounds, after having been inspired by a friend with a physical disability.

After the organization's initial support had begun to fade, Stella's efforts caught the attention of Richmond International Raceway's president, Doug Fritz, motivating him to present a $1,000 check to Operation Hope. Numerous other organizations and individuals also began to contribute.

During the ceremony, Stella told the crowd, "If everybody just chips in a little money, then we can raise enough money to build both playgrounds."

Teelo Rutledge, president of the board of directors for Hanover Arc, said, "This is very important to us. It's a first step. Virginia's ranked 47th out of 50 in the United States in spending for mental retardation, so that is pretty bad, so these little steps that we're taking are going to make a difference in kid's lives and make a difference for the mentally handicapped."

The final speaker was Nelson himself. He thanked everyone who helped make the day possible. In particular, he singled out Stella, Stilwell, and Jane Warrick, founder of Chesterfield County's all-inclusive playground known as Katie & Friends, who "has been an inspiration" for Operation Hope.

"There's nothing ever in my life that I've been able to accomplish that wasn't a result of somebody there helping me, leading me, and that's what you are here today, to make this a reality. Thank you ever so much," Nelson said, adding that a ribbon-cutting ceremony should take place in a few months.

He concluded, "Thanks from the bottom of my heart."

McGhee, Rutledge, Stilwell, Stella, and rotary clubs representative Warren Rice performed the groundbreaking.

Afterward, Nelson explained that construction of the Poor Farm Park playground should begin before the completion of the Pole Green Park playground.

He said, "It will probably be next year this time before both are absolutely complete, but rather than doing everything here and leaving Ashland out, we're going to do a good part here, but then we're going to go to Ashland ... to be fair."


R.J. Santucci, Senior Patrol Leader of Boy Scout Troop #503 makes $500 donation.


Operation Hope seeks to fund playgrounds for disabled children
(printed in the Herald-Progress and written by Dan Sherrier, May 31, 2007)

During the portion of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors meeting designated as "Citizens' Time," May 23, Dana Nelson approached the podium representing Operation Hope, an organization committed to building playgrounds for children with disabilities.

Specifically, Operation Hope intends to construct such playgrounds at Pole Green Park and Poor Farm Park as soon as sufficient funding is achieved.

Nelson stated, "I'm hoping perhaps in this coming year that there would be some help and support from the county. I do believe this is an important project."

Nelson explained that these playgrounds would benefit a few hundred children, which might seem to be a small portion of county's overall youth population. However, Nelson stressed that this minority is equally deserving of having access to quality recreational facilities.

"If you look at what we have today-the playgrounds, the athletic facilities, the recreation facilities-[there is] so much to the average young person and yet we have children who are just sitting there watching the others play," Nelson said.

"This is not a political issue. It's really not a monetary issue. It's more of an ethical issue," he added.

Nelson recounted to the board the story of a gentleman named William Horner who has two sons with disabilities. Both sons are in their twenties now, but Horner told Nelson that they were never able to play on a playground and participate in such activities with other children. Horner then made a contribution of $1,000 to Operation Hope.

"I don't think the average person realizes how many people we have within our community with disabilities," Nelson stated, who mentioned that many disabled children are home-schooled while many of the disabled adults become reclusive.

"So please, as we move forward with this year, if you find a source of some additional funds, please consider Operation Hope," Nelson concluded.

So far, according to Nelson, Operation Hope has raised just over $60,000. Additionally, the Hanover and Mechanicsville Rotaries have pledged $50,000 over the course of this year and next. The project also has the support of Cool Spring Elementary School and the Friends of Hanover.

Nelson reported that parks may cost approximately $150,000 each, which would cover not only the equipment but also a rubber surface "that is hard enough that the children can go across with a wheelchair but yet soft enough that if they fall, they won't get hurt. ... If we're going to do this, it needs to be done right."

South Anna Supervisor John Gordon stated, "I appreciate what [Dana Nelson] is doing for Hanover County, not only with regard to Operation Hope, but in many other regards, and I agree that this is an important project. The number may be small relative to the entire county, but it's still a number of people who don't currently have access. So I am certainly looking forward to working with Mr. Nelson in the next budget cycle."

County Administrator Cecil "Rhu" Harris commented, "There is very substantial support for this project and we're going to work very hard in the future to try to get some money in the budget on behalf of Operation Hope."

After Chairman Robert Setliff thanked Nelson for his efforts, Nelson stated that Operation Hope is "very meaningful to me, and the children are very, very special."


A Friendship that Has No Boundaries
(printed in Mechanicsville Local June 14, 2006 and covered by Kelli Craig)

It began on Reily’s 8th grade birthday that the Pearce’s asked anyone who wanted to get her a birthday gift to donate the money to Operation Hope, a non-profit organization working to build two handicap accessible playgrounds to Hanover County. This would fulfill a dream for the Harden’s and the Pearce’s. Reily has Rett Syndrome, which has left her wheelchair bound, and non-verbal, making it impossible for the two girls to play on a regular playground.



Stella Harden (right) has been best friends with Reily Pearce since they first met in kindergarten.

When all the gift monies came in Stella asked if they raised enough money to build the Operation Hope handicap accessible playground. When she found out they didn’t raise enough, she told her mom that she wanted to help. And, that’s when Stella decided to hold a yard sale to raise more money. At the end of the day, 8-year old Stella raised $157.00 Even though that was not enough money, Stella and Reily’s story of true friendship couldn’t help but touch others who heard of this friendship without boundaries.


Youth Inspires Richmond International Raceways to Join Together with Operation Hope
(printed by the Herald Progress and written by HP Editor Greg Glassner)

President of RIR, Doug Fritz, was inspired to make a larger donation to Operation Hope’s handicap accessible playground after reading Stella and Reily’s story. Mr. Fritz met Stella Harden, Reily Pearce, Dana Nelson and Sharon Kingsbury with Operation Hope at Pole Green Park, where he handed the girl’s a check of $1,000 for Operation Hope Playground, the first all-inclusive playground going in Pole Green Park.


Mr. Fritz, Stella Harden
and Reily Pearce

“As a Hanover County resident, Fritz said he wanted his company to share in the two girls’ vision that there will someday be a playground where they can play together.” Operation Hope, the families and children who will benefit from this specialized playground sincerely appreciate RIR president Doug Fritz for his generosity. Although we have raised over $30,000 so far we are still short due to the fact just one handicap accessible playground costs over $150,000 - we hope this act of kindness will inspire other corporations, organizations and caring individuals to donate. To put your support towards the playground simply send your tax-deductible donation made out to Resources for Independent Living, Inc. (as they are our fiscal agent and just write Operation Hope in the memo part of your check) Any questions please feel free to call Dana Nelson or Sharon Kingsbury at 804-550-2280 and may God Bless You!