Playground Communication Boards Fundraising: Ashley Causey’s Mission in Virginia Beach

When you think of playgrounds, you probably envision a joyful space where children run freely, climb on jungle gyms, and swing to their hearts’ content. But for Ashley Causey, a pediatric speech-language pathologist and mother of three, playgrounds represent something more—potential havens of inclusivity where every child, regardless of their communication abilities, can play and interact without barriers. This isn’t just a hopeful vision; it’s a mission that Ashley has brought to life in Virginia Beach, turning ordinary play areas into extraordinary spaces for all.

Why is this so groundbreaking? Because communication is a fundamental human right, yet many public spaces are not designed to accommodate those who communicate differently. Whether it’s a child with autism, a nonverbal individual, or someone who speaks a different language, the lack of inclusive communication tools in public places often sidelines them. Ashley Causey, in collaboration with Smarty Symbols, is changing that narrative, one communication board at a time. And she’s starting in a place close to home and heart—Virginia Beach’s bustling playgrounds.

Ashley’s project is not just about adding boards; it’s about changing perspectives and making inclusivity a standard, not an afterthought. As you read on, you’ll discover how she and her team have made this dream a reality, bringing communities closer and making playgrounds truly accessible for everyone.

The Spark: Fundraising for Playground Communication Boards

Ashley Causey with a newly installed playground communication board in Virginia Beach.

The seed of inspiration for inclusive playgrounds wasn’t sown in a boardroom or during a formal meeting. For Ashley Causey, it was the culmination of her day-to-day experiences as a pediatric speech-language pathologist and as a mother. Observing children in various settings, she noticed a glaring gap: while some kids engaged freely in playgrounds, others seemed sidelined, their voices muted not by choice but by circumstance.

The lightbulb moment came when Ashley saw a post by Barbara Fernandes, the Founder and CEO of Smarty Symbols, on LinkedIn. The post showcased communication boards designed for public spaces to facilitate more inclusive interactions. Ashley realized that these boards were the missing puzzle piece that could make Virginia Beach playgrounds welcoming to all.

Not one to let an idea simmer, Ashley immediately reached out to Barbara Fernandes to express her interest. The ball started rolling quickly from there. Remi Salami, another SLP and Smarty Symbols’ Sales Director for Inclusion Initiatives, took the lead on the project, working closely with Ashley. Together, they initiated dialogues with city officials, aligned on the project’s vision, and kickstarted the journey towards actualizing it.

And so began a mission, fueled by a post on social media but rooted in Ashley’s years of professional and personal observations. It was a mission to turn ordinary playgrounds into extraordinary spaces, to foster inclusion,  and to say, unequivocally, “You belong here too.”

The Challenge: Obstacles and Triumphs

While the idea was compelling and the team was passionate, the road to making inclusive playgrounds a reality in Virginia Beach was not without its hurdles. The journey began in June of 2022 when Ashley first reached out to Barbara Fernandes of Smarty Symbols. What followed was an entire year of meticulous planning, numerous meetings, and overcoming various challenges.

One of the primary challenges was securing the necessary funding for the project. Building a comprehensive communication board system that was both durable and accessible required a financial commitment. The Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation Foundation came to the rescue. After Ashley presented her vision to the sitting board members, the foundation not only endorsed the project but also decided to sponsor one of the boards themselves. However, financial backing was just the first hurdle.

The next challenge was obtaining city approval. Public spaces have regulations and standards that had to be met. Ashley and Remi Salami navigated the bureaucracy, ensuring that all 11 boards would be compliant with city and state guidelines. They worked hand-in-hand with city officials, turning potential roadblocks into stepping stones.

Collaboration was the cornerstone of overcoming these challenges. Various organizations like United Way of Southampton Roads, Sentara, The Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters (CHKD), and Kroger stepped up to sponsor the boards. Their support not only provided the financial fuel for the project but also amplified its credibility and reach.

It took an entire year, but the perseverance paid off. Today, 11 communication boards stand tall in Virginia Beach playgrounds, each a testament to the persistence, collaboration, and unwavering vision of Ashley Causey and her team. These aren’t just boards; they are bridges to a more inclusive world, built on a foundation of community support and relentless dedication.

Ashley Causey
Ashley Causey@speechinvabeach
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The first communication board is up in the lovely Beach Garden Park! This board could not have happened without Solobo Toys and the Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation Foundation. Be on the lookout for 10 more sponsored boards popping up throughout Virginia Beach. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this neurodiverse movement through the city.

Organizations and People Who Supported This Project:

We cannot talk about the success of this groundbreaking initiative without extending heartfelt gratitude to the organizations that championed this cause. A special thank you goes to the Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation Foundation for not only endorsing the project but also sponsoring one of the boards.

  • United Way of Southampton Roads (2 boards)
  • Sentara
  • The Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters (CHKD)
  • Kroger
  • Solobo Toys
  • Tidewater Autism Society
  • Families of Autistic Children Tidewater (FACT) Autism Resource Center
  • Aid Another
  • Towne Bank
  • Virginia Beach Parks and Rec Foundation

Who were some of the people and organizations that helped support this project?

"Barbara Duke who is the current Vice President of the Virginia Beach Parks and Rec foundation, was a major supporter of the project and helped me bring the idea to fruition at one of the Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation Foundation meetings."

Your sponsorship and support were instrumental in bringing this vision to life. Your commitment to fostering inclusion and diversity doesn’t just make you sponsors; it makes you pioneers in building a community that welcomes and celebrates all forms of communication. Together, we’ve laid the groundwork for a more inclusive future, and for that, we are profoundly grateful.

The Impact: More Than Just Boards

After a year of relentless effort, the communication boards finally stood tall in Virginia Beach playgrounds, but their presence signified something much greater than mere installations. These boards became symbolic keystones in the community’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity, serving as functional art pieces that everyone could use and appreciate.

Why are these boards crucial for inclusion? The answer lies in the fundamental human need for communication. For many individuals—whether nonverbal, autistic, or facing other communication differences and needs— The communication boards break down communication barriers by providing a visual and tactile medium through which anyone can express basic needs, emotions, or even initiate play. All modes of communication are valid and respected!

Ashley Causey’s vision has transformed ordinary playgrounds into extraordinary hubs of inclusion. Each board stands as a testament to the idea that communication is not about the most words but the most understanding. And thanks to these boards, understanding and inclusivity have found a permanent home in the playgrounds of Virginia Beach.

Ashley Causey
Ashley Causey@speechinvabeach
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As a speech-language pathologist who was seeing clients in the community, I saw first hand how spaces need to be made more inclusive. This is an important step to raise awareness and acceptance that people can communicate differently and all communication is valid! Communication is a fundamental right. I am honored that I was able to spearhead a project that promotes a more inclusive community.

Connect with Ashley on Instagram.

A Call to Action: Join the Movement

The story of Ashley Causey and her mission to make Virginia Beach playgrounds inclusive is inspiring, but it’s just one chapter in a much larger narrative. The question now is, what can you do to contribute to making public spaces more inclusive in your community? The good news is, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a difference. Here’s how you can get involved:

  1. Educate and Advocate: Start by educating yourself and others on the importance of inclusive communication. Share articles, like this one, or research studies that highlight the benefits of accessible public spaces.

  2. Connect with Local Organizations: Seek out local nonprofits, educational institutions, or community groups interested in improving public spaces. They can provide resources or partner with you on projects.

  3. Engage with Decision-Makers: Write letters or request meetings with city officials, school boards, and other stakeholders to discuss the importance of inclusivity in public spaces.

  4. Fundraise: Money talks. Consider launching a crowdfunding campaign or applying for grants to fund your own communication boards or other inclusive projects.

  5. Volunteer: Offer your time and skills to existing initiatives. Whether it’s graphic design, project management, or simply hands-on installation, your contribution matters.

  6. Share Your Stories: If you’ve seen the positive impact of inclusive spaces, share your experiences on social media. Use hashtags like #InclusivePlaygrounds and #CommunicationForAll to spread the word.

  7. Contact Us: Interested in setting up communication boards in your local playgrounds? Reach out to us at Smarty Symbols for guidance, resources, and potential collaboration.

The Smarty Symbols Advantage: Streamlining Inclusivity

One of the standout aspects of Ashley Causey’s initiative in Virginia Beach is how Smarty Symbols played a pivotal role in streamlining the entire process. For school districts, cities, and organizations looking to make their public spaces more inclusive, the good news is you don’t have to start from scratch or reinvent the wheel. Here’s how Smarty Symbols can simplify the journey:

  1. Comprehensive Symbol Library: Smarty Symbols offers an expansive and diverse symbol library, ensuring that the communication boards are universally understandable. This saves countless hours in design and decision-making, making it easier to get your project off the ground.

  2. Customization: While the symbol library is comprehensive, Smarty Symbols also allows for customization to suit the unique needs of different communities or organizations. This means your boards can be as specific or as general as you need them to be.

  3. Expert Consultation: Our team, led by experienced communication professionals like Barbara Fernandes and Remi Salami, both SLPs with decades of experience, offers consultation services to guide you through the approval and installation processes, as we did with Ashley in Virginia Beach. This expertise can be invaluable in navigating local regulations and stakeholder concerns.

  4. Scalability: Our solutions are designed to be scalable, making it easy to expand the project from a single park to multiple locations across a city or even a state.

  5. Turnkey Solutions: From design to installation, Smarty Symbols offers turnkey solutions for your communication board needs. We collaborate closely with local stakeholders to ensure a smooth, hassle-free process.

  6. Training and Support: Beyond installation, we offer training sessions and ongoing support to ensure that the boards are being effectively used and maintained.

By offering a comprehensive, customizable, and scalable solution, Smarty Symbols significantly reduces the complexity and timeline of implementing inclusive communication boards. We’re not just providing symbols; we’re providing a pathway to more inclusive communities.