Evanston beaches will take on a new look this spring after the city bought 1,000 feet of roll-out portable walkways called Mobi-Mats, intended to provide a path to Lake Michigan at each of the city’s six beaches for people in wheelchairs, people with strollers and those who find it difficult to walk through sand.
It has also purchased three beach wheelchairs with balloon-size tires that can be easily pushed to the water.
City officials plan to have all this equipment in place before opening day of the beach in late May.
Kathy Chiwah and her 11-year-old son Santi tested one of the new wheelchairs on Wednesday. It was an emotional moment as Kathy took off from the Clark Street Beach House and ran to the lake with Santi in the new chair. They seemed to float above the chair’s round tires. Imagine what it must feel like to run for the first time with your child. There were tears.
“I’ve tried them before at water parks and they were big and cumbersome,” said Kathy of beach wheelchairs. “This was so easy to push that I can run with him.” She said she especially liked the chair because it is adjustable and has safety straps.
Said Santi, who got out of school early for the test: “What I really want is to go down to the beach, get on my knees and let the water get me.” It was too cold for that and he was bundled up, but he smiled as his mother ran with him to the water.
The new equipment is in part a response to “No way to the water,” an Evanston RoundTable story in August 2022 that detailed how only one city beach offered a complete path to the water for people who use wheelchairs.
The push to make beaches more accessible to people with disabilities was spearheaded by Audrey Thompson, who took over as director of the Parks and Recreation Department last year.
“This is all part of our desire to make the lakefront more accessible to all Evanston residents,” said Michael Callahan, assistant director.
The portable mobility walkways – like the ones in use during the beach season at the Clark Street Beach – were purchased by the city this winter for about $50,000. They are in storage now and will be rolled out at six beaches, including the Greenwood Street Beach, and extended to near the edge of the Lake Michigan shore before the season opens. They new mats will replace plastic boardwalks.
At first, one adult chair will be kept at the Clark Street Beach House for daily use. One adult and one smaller chair will be at the Dempster Beach, according to Callahan. But the chairs can be wheeled to any of the city’s six beaches.
“We are learning as we go,” he said, “That’s why we are soliciting feedback.”
The large chair cost the city about $2,900; the small chair costs about $2,600. They will be lent for free. More chairs will be ordered if there is demand, Callahan said.
“It’s a problem we hope to have,” he said.
The key will be making people aware of the chairs and mats. Chiwah suggested the parks department contact every Evanston social worker. Santi goes to District 65’s Park School, where she estimates more than 100 students could benefit from the equipment as well as students throughout the school district and in District 202. Access to the entire beach and the water will have a big impact, she said.
“The beaches are going to look different this year,” she said, “with lots of people who used to spend time inside.”
Santi got me with this quote:“What I really want is to go down to the beach, get on my knees and let the water get me.” YES!! We all want the water to get us. Excited for Santi to enjoy it too.
santi’s my homie🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼
Goosebumps. The Chiwahs are the best. Everyone in Evanston deserves to touch the lake as often as they can. It’s the most special thing about living here.
Good work, Evanston Parks & Rec Dept.! Director Audrey Thompson and her team have moved with all deliberate speed to address not only accessibility but also other issues that needed attention and action. Thank you!
Thank you, Richard, for your coverage of this story. Many thanks to Audrey, Mike, Tim, and the Parks & Recreation team for making this happen!