PROVO — Four-year-old Kiya Banzhaf had been eyeing the swing the whole afternoon.
As soon as the blue ribbon fell, signifying the playground was open for business, she turned to her mother and asked if she could ride it.
For mother Kristen Banzhaf, it was a relief to say yes. Kiya, like a lot of the other kids who undergo physical therapy at the Provo-based Now I Can Foundation, has serious physical disabilities as a result of being born with cerebral palsy. She has trouble holding herself upright, so she can't play on most swings.
“It’s too easy for her to fall off,” Banzhaf said. "She would go out to the playground and she would sit there and watch them, basically.”
Volunteers from Pleasant Grove-based wellness company doTERRA sought to change that situation for the kids at Now I Can. Last week they finished installing a fully accessible playground in the backyard of the Now I Can property.
It's the only one of its kind in Provo, according to Now I Can Director Tracey Christensen, who said she was "very grateful. I'm very overwhelmed to think this dream is realized."
Christensen and her husband, Joel, started the nonprofit organization 10 years ago to provide intensive therapeutic exercise to children with serious physical disabilities stemming from disorders such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida. They were inspired to do so after their daughter, Colby, who was also born with cerebral palsy, benefitted from a similar program in Poland.
At Now I Can, children undergo intense three- or four-week physical therapy sessions, exercising four hours a day for five days a week. To help with the financial burden, the Christensens purchased a small home two years ago where families can stay for $15 a night while their children get treatment.
Tracey Christensen said she long dreamed of installing a playground in the backyard, but Now I Can could never afford it.
Soon, she plans to open the playground to the public on scheduled days.
"The parents are so excited," she said Wednesday as children — many in wheelchairs or walkers — played tether ball and clambered through the snake-like play tunnel. "It's good therapy to play. Now they're getting the therapy and they don't even know it."
The Christensens worked closely with doTERRA marketing director McKay Brown to choose playground equipment that would be both safe and therapeutic.
They picked a swing that had a harnesses and high-backed seat so kids like Kiya could sit up comfortably. The bought a spinning, carousel-like apparatus because it would improve kids' vestibular systems — crucial for balance and spatial orientation.
And the blue rubber mat that lines the ground is necessary so kids in walkers or wheelchairs can access the entire playground, unlike the wood chips and sand found in most neighborhood parks.
Brown said the project was about celebrating children who did “heroic things on a small scale.”
He said 85 doTERRA employees worked for a week to clear the backyard, pour a new driveway and sidewalk, and install the equipment.
"This afternoon, the girl staying in the house came and we got her on the five-point safety swing," Brown said. "And it was so worth it to see her face grinning from ear to ear."
That girl, 10-year-old Brianna Heim, was born with a rare genetic disorder called glutaric acidemia, type 1. Because of the disorder, she has poor muscle tone and gets spasms that sometimes cause her to collapse unexpectedly.
After attending four intensive physical therapy sessions at Now I Can, focusing on core strength and balance, Brianna has been able to better control her movements and can use a walker instead of relying on her power wheelchair, according to mother Wendy Heim.
But, Heim said, the biggest change is seeing Brianna learn how to be confident and "trust herself."
Over the past four years, Heim said, her previously wheelchair-bound little girl has grown into a spunky preteen with an inexplicable dream of one day driving a Zamboni for the Utah Grizzlies.
“She has a great attitude, with all the struggles she’s had,” Heim said. "She's magical like that.”
Magic, in fact, is kind of Brianna’s thing. Wearing a tiara and a purple shirt from the Miss Amazing Pageant — she recently won the national preteen title in Los Angeles — she rolled to the front of the crowd to show off her newest trick.
Using an iPad to talk, Brianna showed the audience an empty flower pot.
“Now, I’m planting seeds,” Brianna said, mimicking the action with a tiny trowel, arms shaking slightly.
“Now, I’m adding water,” she said, pouring invisible water from a plastic watering pot.'
Finally, grinning widely, Brianna waved her magic wand over the pot. And suddenly — abracadabra! — a purple flower popped up.
Brianna's face shone as the audience cheered.
Her mother watching, Brianna pushed another button on her iPad.
"Now," she told the audience, "there is a beautiful flower."
Email: [email protected]; Twitter: DaphneChen_