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Bonnet House’s Wheelchair Accessible Golf Cart Spreads Smiles to Children with Disabilities

Bonnet House Museum & Gardens is an essential part of Fort Lauderdale. The historic site, dating to 1920, is a popular destination for Florida tourists and a welcome reprieve for locals from the active Fort Lauderdale scene. While the city landscape looks entirely different than it did 100 years ago, the Bartlett’s artistic estate looks very much the same, making Bonnet House and its gorgeous natural land a popular destination for field trips.

Friday, April 12th was a busy morning for field trips at Bonnet House. That morning, staff and volunteers were preparing to welcome groups of children from a local school. Linda Schaller, Director of Education and Volunteer Programs, was at the helm, with Tour Coordinator Randy Mayweather and Volunteer Bonnie Lundy, all ready to receive the groups pouring out from the buses and guide field trips that engage students in a fun day of learning.

“There are different kinds of programs for school children,” Randy explained, “sometimes schools want art programs, sometimes science.” Recently, Bonnet House has been taking steps to increase STEM education. “This school was here for our Eco Program. This program gives kids the opportunity to learn about several types of waterways, about what Indigenous peoples and settlers had to do to make water drinkable and learn about water quality using a hydrometer. We go on nature walks, watch the birds, turtles, and fish. Just a couple of weeks ago, a group of students enjoyed watching a manatee under the bridge near the boat house. These children might get to see an anhinga (a kind of waterfowl) catch a fish for lunch. Children come here to be in nature and learn from experience – in a way they can’t anywhere else.”

The buses arrived and the field trippers, eager to enjoy their day, organized into groups. “I always know ahead of time how many students are coming,” Linda said. “Teachers fill out a registration form, and I usually communicate with them via email as phone calls are tough when they are teaching. I give a list as to how to pack lunches to make them animal proof, what to wear and how to dress – no flip flops etc. – and ask about physical disabilities so we can make appropriate accommodations.”

Including Linda, some of Bonnet House’s other staff and volunteers also have previous careers in education. Bonnie is one of the volunteers at Bonnet House who specializes in tours for children. In her career, Bonnie worked many years as a special needs educator; she has the skillset and experience to work directly with children who have a disability. She knows how to read their cues and help facilitate understanding. Bonnie’s experience was especially needed on this particular Friday; not only did Bonnet House welcome seventy students, but seven of these students had mental disabilities, and one young girl was wheelchair-bound due to physical impairment.

Much of Bonnet House’s grounds are natural, Florida land. Unpaved dirt, mulch, or gravel paths are difficult to navigate for anyone who cannot walk unaided. In years past, a child who was not able to move their limbs would have to be carried out of their wheelchair by their aide and transferred to a golf cart. This can be distressing for the child, and, in recent years, has been discouraged for health and safety reasons. Consequently, Linda recalled, “We came to understand very quickly that we needed to make a change to better accommodate guests with diverse needs.

For a non-profit organization like Bonnet House, funding the purchase of a wheelchair-accessible golf cart is no small feat. Yet, the need for a golf cart that could accommodate a wheelchair without transferring its occupant between seats struck a chord with Bonnet House donors. “It was a fast fundraiser!” Linda remarked. “Many of our staff and volunteers work directly with the kids and guests of all ages. They see the need firsthand and many of them contributed. I’m so proud of them…always! Along with our donors and members who made this possible, we are very, very lucky to have such caring people supporting Bonnet House!”

The new golf cart was invaluable that Friday morning. Bonnie recalled, “For physically disabled children, their chair is their comfort zone. That day, the young girl who used a wheelchair was upset, frightened, and crying when she arrived – distressed and scared to be out of her known environment. Her teacher was wonderful, though.”

Linda and Randy agreed. Randy recalled, “that teacher was amazing! She teaches the kids compassion, kindness, how to be friendly and nice. The other kids went up to hug the girl when she was crying and said, ‘don’t cry! It’s okay!’”

“With the wheelchair-accessible golf cart, now people with physical disabilities can stay right in their own wheelchairs where they feel the most secure.” Linda recalled, “Her aide wheeled her to the golf cart, and we tried to help her feel comfortable, calling her by name saying, ‘this is a cart just for you and your aide. We are going to put down a ramp and get you on so you can be with everyone else.’ As we put down the ramp, she looked up and smiled. We got the chair secure with hooks and straps and talked as we put up the ramp, and off we went to the house. When it came time for the grounds, we did the same. We made sure each of the students got to ride in the cart too!”

“It’s so good to have that wheelchair tram,” Randy said. We drove her all around the grounds, the trails, the beach path up to the fence before A1A so she could look out over the ocean.”

Bonnie said, “As soon as she got in the golf cart and realized she could be in her own chair, she stopped crying. By the end of the field trip, the young girl was smiling, looking around and enjoying herself, rather than being scared or stressed. She never cried again; she smiled and was still smiling as they got on the bus.”

“The teacher told us she had been afraid to bring this little one,” Linda recalled, “because she was not sure how she would react to such a big change. By the end of the field trip, she let us know that this was a wonderful experience for the child and her whole class. This little girl is the reason for the wheelchair-accessible golf cart. She could not use arms or legs; she could not talk, but that smile on her face meant everything to us.”

Darla Stanton, Director of Development added, “we have the best donors. They are all so generous, have a genuine love of Bonnet House, and understand what this historic property means to Fort Lauderdale. It takes a lot to preserve the home and estate! Then, there are additional needs that come up like this wheelchair-accessible golf cart. We told them what we needed, how much it would cost, and they came through. I’m so very thankful for all we can accomplish due to their generosity.”

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