Healing Playscape Benefits Survivors of Domestic Violence

Originally published: 
June, 2017

Author: Katie Hoffman

After being greeted by a family of sculptured penguins, you may be tempted to linger on the bridge over a faux pond, or relax on a stone bench in a Japanese rock garden. Feeling ambitious? Try a workout at the outdoor fitness center, or jog a few laps around the track.

No, you haven’t stumbled into an Orlando resort. You are simply on the grounds of First Step, Wayne County’s largest domestic violence shelter, located in Wayne, Michigan.

“More than 50 percent of our shelter residents are children and most of them have experienced a lot of trauma and fear,” said First Step assistant director Theresa Bizoe. “After doing some thoughtful research, we discovered that a playground for the children and a beautiful, relaxing nature park would be of great benefit to the families at our site.”

How an 85,000-square-foot healing playscape evolved is a story of inspiration, hard work, and community engagement. In 2012, the First Step board of directors decided to move forward with the playground project on the new shelter site, and a request for bids was issued to a number of playground companies. After interviewing several companies, the organization chose Greenscape Systems, owned by SNRE alum Jonathan Dreyfuss (BS ‘80).

“The space embodies many of the same design and behavioral science-based elements that go into hospital healing gardens,” Dreyfuss said. “Simply put, this space was designed to support the clients and staff of First Step in their journey of healing after traumatic domestic violence cases.”

Dreyfuss defines a healing playscape as an outdoor space that supports the social, physical, and—most importantly—emotional needs of clients and staff. This is reflected in the diversity of activities, from passive to active, as well as the application of a variety of colors and textures and the extensive use of gardens and plants.

“Jonathan felt so strongly about this project, he donated his time as project manager,” said Bizoe. “He was driven to help this project succeed. He accompanied us on fundraising presentations, met with donors to design special systems, and spent over three years assisting with the project.”

The co-founder of Recycle Ann Arbor, an inventor, and a landscape designer with 25 years of experience, Dreyfuss considers himself an “idea man” and systems-thinker, and said that his education at SNRE led him to this path. There is no doubt that his degree in natural resources, his major in organizational change, and his breadth of experience prepared him to design one of the largest healing playscapes in the country.

In addition to making an ideal space for healing, Dreyfuss developed a number of “green” elements, demonstrating permaculture at its finest. One example is a 2,000-gallon roof water collection system, which is used to irrigate the gardens. Another is the porous paving surface in the rock gardens and waterwall area that eliminates runoff and lets rainwater be absorbed into the ground.

The roof water collection system was made possible by a local vendor’s cistern donation. The materials for the porous surface were also donated. In fact, nearly all the materials used in the construction of the site were either donated or provided at cost.

“This space was created with love manifested by the community,” said Bizoe. “The donors, volunteers, and so many groups worked thousands of hours on this site. Whenever we needed something, someone was there to donate the materials or volunteer to help with the installation.”

Dreyfuss noted that a local nursery contributed 60 trees, and several landscape companies came out with 60-70 workers and equipment to plant the trees free of charge. Many individuals, civic organizations, and corporations provided volunteers over the course of the project to build the complex site. “It was a wonderful affirmation of the giving and compassionate spirit of the volunteers and organizations,” said Dreyfuss.

The volunteers and professional contractors built four separate play areas, designed for young people ranging from infants and toddlers through teenagers, as well as four garden areas, all with benches and a variety of plantings. So as not to interfere with the above-ground features, the underground infrastructure is quite complex. It includes plumbing, electrical, and dual irrigation systems, plus stormwater and graywater disposal and recycling. “The site was a design and building challenge. It was the culmination of all my years of experience and it proved to be the most gratifying project of my career,” said Dreyfuss.

Bizoe reports that there are many benefits of the space. Families are going outside to get exercise, and children and adults are calmer, less stressed. Both children and adults spend a lot of time using technology, but when families go out on the playscape, they are spending quality time together, playing and enjoying each other’s company.

The brains of the operation (from left to right): Craig Sheffer (Michigan Recreational Construction), Jonathan Dreyfuss (SEAS alum and project manager), and Theresa Bizoe (Asst. Directer of First Step)First Step also holds support group meetings in the picnic pavilion, where clients and staff can enjoy the site’s beauty in a secure setting. When the weather cooperates, staff often eat lunch out on the playscape and walk around the track to clear their minds and relax.

“The project was truly amazing and inspiring,” said Bizoe. “I think it brought joy to all the people who worked on it and will bring joy to the families who will use it to heal from the trauma of violence and the distress of having to leave their homes in order to go to a safe place.”

Thanks to the vision of First Step, Jonathan Dreyfuss, and the support of a compassionate community, what was once a muddy field has become a space for families to heal and thrive!