Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / From left, Eli Glass, Ja'zelle Jenkins and Ryley Boston play with sand on Thursday, September 16, 2021 at Signal Centers. Friends of Special Children is holding a fundraiser for playground equipment for Signal Centers.

Nonprofit organization Friends of Special Children is raising funds to make improvements to Signal Centers' Therapeutic Playground for the Arts, which was the first of its kind in the nation when it was built with funds raised by the friends 12 years ago, said the group's president, Lynn Reese.

The playground serves as a benchmark study for NatureGrounds, a partnership between PlayCore and North Carolina State College of Design's Natural Learning Initiative to develop best practice guidelines for design that incorporates nature into children's lives, according to the PlayCore website.

Designed for children of all abilities, the playground features natural landscaping elements, inclusive play structures, a tricycle path, an amphitheater, a covered pavilion, a music and art area, an outdoor sound system and an in-ground slide.

The playground has two parts: the main area for children ages 3-5 and the baby music and art area for children up to 3 years old. Improvements will include a new poured-in-place rubber ground surface for the entire main playground, three large sail-shade canopies, musical instruments, several landscape items and new swings.

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Signal Centers playground

Signal Centers serves about 140 children, about 40-50% of whom have a disability, Signal Centers CEO Donna McConnico said.

"We want to be sure that every child has access to great play experiences because that's how children learn," McConnico said. "We want to make sure that it's safe and it also engages their minds and their bodies."

The estimated cost of the improvements is $175,000, which the friends group hopes to raise through its 16th annual ABC event and silent auction.

Hosted by 2021 chairs Mike and Judy St. Charles, the event is Sept. 30 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in a big tent outside Signal Centers. It includes dinner, an open bar, a live auction and opportunities to win prizes and socialize without having to sit through a program, Reese said.

"We're a 501[c][3] nonprofit organization, and we're all volunteers, so our goal is to get every penny we can to Signal Centers," Reese said. "We don't really have any operation funds, and that's a little different from some organizations."

Tickets are $50 each at Early bidding for the silent auction runs from Sept. 23-29 at Items up for grabs include everything from weekend vacation rentals to bottles of liquor to a child-size Lamborghini.

Contact Emily Crisman at or 423-757-6508.