Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Damian Buchman works to make public spaces accessible to all

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Damian Buchman is a man on a mission. He wants everyone, regardless of their mobility, to be able to enjoy our public spaces. Last July, he made Milwaukee’s Bradford Beach more functional with a new ramp and sand wheelchairs. Now, he has a new project in Wauwatosa.

“Everything I think about is -- how do people feel welcome, wanted and comfortable in this space,” Buchman said.

When Buchman looks around Wisconsin Avenue Park, he sees more than a playground, picnic area and baseball fields. He also sees an opportunity.

“We want to create the country's first universal park,” Buchman explained.

This is the future home of “Ramp Up” Universal Park. Buchman, founder and director of The Ability Center, showed CBS 58 the plans for the $7-million project.

“So, you want to engage them, you want to mobilize them,” he said pointing towards the baseball fields, which will be made out of materials that make them accessible for wheelchairs and walkers.

He walked around the park, showing all of the potential he sees.

“It's an attempt, but it's not functional,” he said, stopping at the playground.

The path at the playground only goes as far as the toddler-sized wings, and it stops at steps leading up to the play structure, which isn’t functional for a person in a wheelchair.

Continuing on towards the picnic area, Buchman sees more room for improvement.

“I think it's really important to show you, that this path ends,” he said of the sidewalk, that stops feet from any of the picnic tables. “Sometimes, as a community member, it has this feeling like, well, this is all you're worth.”

It’s a feeling Buchman knows.

“I walked into Children's Hospital 30 years ago, just before my 13th birthday, and got diagnosed with bone cancer in my right leg,” he said.

Seven months later, the cancer spread to his left leg.

“I mean, I can remember just hours, staring out of the window of Children's Hospital when I was a kid, wanting to play, wanting to engage, thinking about what I was missing with my friends,” he recalled.

He’s had more than 20 surgeries, and sometimes felt the message he got was that he should feel lucky to be alive, but Buchman has always wanted more than that. He said he hasn’t seen enough change in the 30 years since his diagnosis.

Honoring his survivorship meant spending years to make Bradford Beach the country’s most accessible.

“You can now go from Lincoln Memorial Drive all the way to the water's edge, and your experience as someone with a limitation doesn't end,” he said with pride.

He also brought skating for all to Red Arrow Park. So now, building a universal park so close to Children’s Hospital feels right.

“That's my target here. Thinking about the kids who are going to come from Children's Hospital, Ronald McDonald House, maybe people who are injured adults at Froedtert,” he said. “Your life may be different, but there's a new normal outside of that.”

Leila Wright is the executive director of Miracle League of Milwaukee.

“When I saw the plans, I was really excited,” she said.

The planned changes to universal field will allow the 100 kids in her baseball program more opportunities to play ball. In a word, she said it’s all about equity.

“It's about having access for all, and being able to play in your community, without having to travel an extensive distance to get there,” Wright said.

It’s a change she sees as long overdue.

“It's taken us this long to get there, and it's taken one person -- one person -- driving hard on our community, in order to make it happen,” she said of Buchman.

And for Buchman, compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act isn’t enough.

“That was the 30th anniversary of Americans With Disabilities Act,” Buchman said of the day the improvements were unveiled at Bradford Beach. “So the mentality that we have right now is that things are compliant.”

But he said “compliant” should be seen as the bare minimum. He wants everyone to have equal opportunities to enjoy once they get there.

Buchman expects the project to take about three years to complete, building a place truly meant for all.

“We think everybody wants to play baseball. We think everybody wants to play on the playground. Everybody wants to walk the woods,” he said. “Everybody should be able to do that.”

For more information on The Ability Center, the project, and how you can help, just visit https://tacwi.org/.

And if you’d like to nominate someone for Natalie’s Everyday Heroes, send Natalie a message at NShepherd@cbs58.com.

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