Mia Vasquez dream playground: Vasquez still fights daily with chronic pain.
Mia Vasquez has been fighting for her life from the time she was born.
That fighting spirit has inspired her parents to lobby for a Hayward playground that can accommodate her and other special needs children.
Born at 33 weeks and weighing only 2 pounds, 6 ounces, Mia spent 100 days in neonatal intensive care before leaving the hospital weighing only 5 pounds.
Doctors told Mia’s parents she may not live longer than a year.
At 9 years old, Vasquez still fights daily with chronic pain, cerebral palsy and dystonia, a movement disorder that causes her muscles to contract uncontrollably.
Though no solid diagnosis has been determined yet, Vasquez’s doctors and specialists say her likely diagnosis is Cockayne syndrome, a rare and fatal degenerative disorder that causes growth failure, impaired nervous system development and premature aging.
Mia’s parents are racing against time to give her, and the South Hayward community, a wish that has brought her joy over the years: an all-accessible playground, but one she can visit close to home.
“Raising a child with special health care needs is very isolating; it literally becomes your little family unit, besides dealing with the complexities of appointments and their health care issues,” Vasquez’s mother Emelyn Lacayo said in an interview last week.
“A park would bring out these other families who are also in isolation, and we can attest to it ourselves. We come from a background where, if you don’t go to a party or a family event, it’s like the most horrible thing. But in reality, if it’s not good weather for (Mia), or if it’s too loud, we have to take all of that into consideration,” she said.
Mia’s father, Daniel Vasquez, said he and Lacayo have tried hard to ensure that Mia was treated no differently than other children when it came to family activities from the time she was 2 or 3 years old. But after visiting a number of parks near their South Hayward home, they realized that many could not accommodate Mia’s needs adequately.
Instead, the couple travels to two playgrounds designed for children of all abilities: Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto and Matteo’s Dream in Concord.
“It’s definitely quite a journey for Mia, because we can’t just get up and take off,” Vasquez said.
“We have to plan out her day, and to go that far either because of traffic or the distance is pretty tiring, but it is something that she definitely enjoys. Once she goes to these accessible parks and starts going down slides or playing in the spinners, she has a blast,” he said.
The couple applied to the Make a Wish Foundation Greater Bay Area in 2015 and asked for help in building an all-accessible playground in Hayward.
After their request was granted, Vasquez and Lacayo approached Hayward Area Recreation and Park District administrators and directors in early 2016 and asked if space could be set aside in a Hayward park for the playground.
Park district directors agreed last year to dedicate about an acre of space at South Hayward’s Tennyson Park for the playground, which will be called, “Mia’s Dream Come True: Where the Heart of the Bay Comes to Play.”
“The hope is that the park will allow other kids and families to feel that they could come out of their homes and play on a playground that had the accessibility to get out of your wheelchair if you wanted to. Or if they’re in their wheelchair, they can get in a swing,” Lacayo said.
“By visiting other parks, we were able to get these ideas of what is needed,” she said.
The proposed $2.5 million park would have play structures designed around key Hayward spots that Mia enjoys, including Sulphur Creek Nature Center, Hayward Executive Airport, the Hayward loop, Hayward shoreline, the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge and the water tower near Cannery Park.
There also will be a music therapy area, interactive language board for children who can’t see and a quiet zone for autistic children, said Pam Russo, executive director of the Hayward Park and Recreation District Foundation.
“Mobility and motion is really important to children with special needs, so each of the various structures will incorporate all of our seven senses to best allow children to play, recreate and have fun,” Russo said in an interview.
“It will be very much designed with all disabilities in mind and how each child may respond to different forms of therapy,” she said.
The playground has received a $15,000 donation from the Hayward Rotary Club and a $500,000 commitment from the office of Alameda County Supervisor Richard Valle.
“Part of what is fueling us is the fact that, when we do talk about this, people just automatically want this project to happen,” Russo said.
That leaves about a $1.2 million funding gap to build the playground, but the foundation is hopeful that several grants pan out.
Though the playground would primarily be tailored for seniors and adults or children with disabilities, the goal is to also teach other children and adults how to empathize with those with special needs, Vasquez said.
It’s a lesson that Mia Vasquez has taught her parents many times over.
“She has allowed us to find strength in ourselves to go beyond what we were capable of,” Lacayo said.
Vasquez, for instance, has served as a family partner at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland for children with special needs the past two years.
Lacayo, meanwhile, has worked as a registered nurse at St. Rose Hospital the past year.
“We do things to ensure she can live the best life that she can regardless of her challenges, but I think we’re as driven as we are because of her, because she has shown us that there’s no excuse. We can throw ourselves a pity party for five seconds and then we need to get back up,” she said.