KARLOVAC, Croatia -- Anticipation and red balloons filled the air as delighted children, parents and key government officials celebrated the opening of a special needs playground facility in the heart of this northwestern Croatian town.

The humanitarian assistance project, funded by the U.S. European Command and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District was unveiled June 16, 2011 during a ceremony attended by U.S. Ambassador James Foley, Mayor Damir Jelic of Karlovac, military representatives and other dignitaries.

Local girls and boys, dressed in traditional Croatian outfits danced, sung and released red balloons during the dedication. Red balloons, symbolic of childhood dreams, floated high into the sky. After the official ceremony, children of all ages and abilities swarmed the playground to climb, swing and slide for the rest of the afternoon.

The project came to fruition through the teamwork of the U.S. Embassy Zagreb, the Office of Defense Cooperation, EUCOM, USACE and the local government Ame Stormer, EUCOM humanitarian assistance project manager explained.

“People are coming together to do good things,” Stormer said. “We are thinking about how to do humanitarian assistance for the right reasons at the right times in the right places.”

According to Regine Mueller, USACE project manager, the hard work put forth on this project has been worthwhile.

“Seeing joy on the faces of children and local people makes me realize that the hard work I did [to help complete this HA project] was well worth it,” Mueller said. “It gives me a tremendous sense of accomplishment knowing my work brings good to lives of kids.”

The playground cost approximately $400,000 to build and will serve more than 155 special needs children in the Karlovac community.

“Projects like this help local communities take care of their people,” said Stormer. The playground will “help integrate [disabled] folks and stop them from being marginalized.”

During the battle for independence in Croatia, the town of Karlovac was hit particularly hard by the war. As a result of this conflict, the children, especially those with special needs, did not have a place to meet and play amongst their peers. This facility will fill that void Brian Trzaska, USACE special projects civil engineer explained.

“The facility is uniquely designed to be accessed and used by children with special needs; for example via wheelchair, so that they do not feel left out,” Trzaska said.

Today, regardless of their ability or age Karlovac children can play together in one shared space. The playground is accessible by specialized ramps and paths. Soft surfaces, rather than wood chips or grass, have been installed under the equipment to enable wheelchair mobility explained Trzaska.

“The Corps of Engineers was very excited to be a part of making this dream a reality for the city of Karlovac and its youth,” Trzaska added.

The playground idea was nominated and programmed by the Office of Defense Cooperation, who submitted a request to EUCOM. They then turned to USACE to oversee construction of the project explained Stormer.

“What we tend to do is contract the overall project to the Corps [of Engineers] to ensure performance. Then local contractors, when possible, do the actual construction work,” Stormer said. “It gives us a safeguard, but at the same time provides a boost to the local economy.”

Here in Karlovac, a local firm designed and constructed the playground facility. The heavy project involvement of a Croatian contractor and the city government “fostered buy-in from the community,” Stormer said.

“It is always a pleasure to be able to work with a local contractor on a project of this significance,” Trzaska added. “The economic benefit to the community as well as the city provides a sense of pride in what is being built. The return on investment on this project is priceless.”

Page last updated Fri August 12th, 2011 at 00:00