Susan Hatten and Brenna Finnerty, chums since their days attending Iowa State University, wanted to pay tribute to a late friend. After countless hours in meetings with city officials and organizing fundraising events, they have gained lessons in civics and Greater Des Moines’ brand of generosity.

Hatten and Finnerty are the driving forces behind the Ashley Okland Star Playground, which will be built in Ewing Park next year. It will be the city’s only playground designed to meet the needs of children with cognitive and physical disabilities.

The playground is a tribute to Okland, a former Iowa Realty Co. Inc. agent who was shot to death April 8, 2011, at the model home she was showing. Her death remains under investigation.

Okland was involved in a variety of programs to benefit children. This special playground will be a place where children of all abilities and disabilities can romp.

“We wanted something that personified her passion,” Hatten said. “And we wanted to make sure it was a project we could hang our hats on.”

The playground idea was hatched over several conversations in which Hatten and Finnerty batted around ideas for the perfect tribute. They also were getting ideas from other sources, including Okland’s family.

“A lot of people wanted to do something, but they didn’t know what to do,” Hatten said.

One evening, the idea for a playground emerged while the two women were having a glass of wine. 

“It’s nice to see it move from a conversation to something physical,” Finnerty said.

“We planted the seed a long time ago; we just had to nurture it along,” Hatten said.

The playground was an obvious choice. Okland enjoyed being outside, and she loved to work with children. Those aspects of her character became obvious through Hatten and Finnerty’s work with Okland in Variety – The Children’s Charity and other charitable organizations.

Okland had served on the Variety board, and Hatten is a current board member. The organization is spearheading a $500,000 fundraising campaign for the playground and plans to have it under construction next year.

“Ashley had a lot of energy,” Finnerty said, and a playground was the perfect tribute.

Not so simple is getting approval for a playground and coming up with the funds to have one built.

The friends met with City Councilwoman Christine Hensley, who helped point them in the right direction – the city’s Park and Recreation Department.

That led to countless meetings with city staffers to come up with the ideal location. Ewing Park was selected because it was familiar to Des Moines families, partly because it hosted Soap Box Derby competitions and partly because it is famous for its aromatic lilac gardens.

In addition, the park was being revitalized and Indianola Avenue had undergone a major reconstruction, making Ewing easy to access. Also, a parking lot was nearby, a key feature needed for a playground to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Building a parking lot would have added time and money to the project,” Finnerty said.

With a location in mind, there were other considerations.

Hatten and Finnerty were brought up to speed on liability. For example, who owns the playground site while it is under construction? The answer is Cunningham Recreation, a North Carolina-based contractor that specializes in building playgrounds for children of all abilities. The company will lead construction of the Ashley Okland Star Playground.

They learned about grading, water drainage, parking and accessible restrooms.

They learned about and received help dealing with a range of rules and regulations and processes and a whole raft of legal documents.

Prior to taking the project before the City Council in September, Hatten and Finnerty had participated in about 40 meetings with engineers, lawyers and contractors.

They were encouraged by park and recreation staffers to keep pursuing the project, and they felt as though  the city  supported their efforts.

“It has been a lesson in local government,” Finnerty said.

The project also has been a lesson in generosity.

“We are just shy of the $200,000 mark, and we have had some great conversations of late with the Polk County Board of Supervisors, Wells Fargo (& Co.) and a few more,” Hatten said. “There are several fundraising events coming up to commemorate Ashley’s golden birthday in December.” 

In addition to a contribution from the Okland family, Iowa Realty and its agents have donated money to the project. Iowa Realty President Mike Knapp also has organized a fundraising effort by the Iowa Association of Realtors, with a target of $100,000. Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield has promised a $50,000 matching grant. Knapp Properties Inc. has given money, as have others.

“We feel as though Ashley is bringing all of these people together,” Hatten said.