Jeff Healey Park On Way To Be Retrofitted For Disabled Children

By Karen Bliss 4/15/12 |

Jeff Healey's wife, Cristie, and his father Bud Healey, at the late musician's eponymous park

A coalition of late guitarist Jeff Healey's friends, family and fellow musicians is raising money to make The Jeff Healey Park in Toronto more accessible for disabled children by adding specially designed playground equipment.

The park, originally called Woodford Park, was renamed last June after the internationally acclaimed singer-guitarist who had been blind since age 1 from retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer. He died of lung cancer in 2008 at 41.

"We can do something meaningful for as little as $20,000 to $25,000, like have a little area that's more accessible on the playground," says Rob Quail, who played in bands with Healey when they were teenagers and in their early 20s.

Shortly after, Healey -- who played the guitar flat on his lap -- formed The Jeff Healey Band with bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen which signed to Arista in 1988 and released the Grammy-nominated See The Light. The band's last album was 2000's Get Me Some, then Healey released numerous solo albums.

Jeff Healey Park is located at 1 Delroy Drive in the Queensway and Royal York Road area of Etobicoke, where Healey was born and raised and was living at the time of his death.  Healey's family has lived across from the park for 47 years.

Quail says they are dealing with Erik Hess, the west district landscape architect for the City of Toronto, Park Development and Capital Planning.

"What we're talking about with Erik, in particular, is building in some features that would make sense for kids that have either perceptual or sight problems, so things that are more tactile or incorporate more musical sound-making devices and that sort of thing because that seems to fit more with the Jeff Healey theme."

A benefit concert was just held April 12 at The Sound Academy, featuring such names as Randy Bachman, Paul James, Jack de Keyzer, Danny Marks and Tony "Wild T" Springer, that raised about $10,000.  Further fundraising activities and private donations will determine what equipment can be installed on the site.

"What we're doing now is working with the City to develop different alternatives for different price points," explains Quail.

Prior to any involvement from Healey's friends and family, there was a new playground built on the grounds in the fall of 2010. "That was entirely funded by fundraising activities involving the whole community," according to Quail.

"They're in the same community as the Behaviour Institute, which is an entity for children with perceptual learning disabilities [autism] and they had been talking -- even before we approached them about the park renaming -- about adding some features to the park in a future phase, including tactile things and things more suited for kids that have special or perceptual problems."

The renaming of Woodford Park came after a formal request was submitted on February 16, 2011 to the Etobicoke York Community Council.

"We'd been trying to get Jeff memorialized somewhere in the city," recounts Quail. "We tried for a star on the Walk of Fame and were turned down by the committee three years in a row, and sort of as an act of desperation I sent an email to the mayor -- Mayor [David] Miller at the time - saying, 'I know you were a fan of this guy. We'd really like to find some other way to commemorate him.'

"He hooked me up with some guys in his office and later [city councilor, Etobicoke-Lakeshore] Peter Milczyn, and we talked about parks. Then someone brought up this idea of Woodford Park and I remembered that Jeff played in that park as a child. Jeff knew the park so well that when he met his wife [Cristie], on one of their first dates, he took her there to show where he used to play as a child.

"The other happy coincidence was that no one seemed to know why Woodford park was called Woodford Park. They couldn't find anything in the archives and they interviewed people in the neighbourhood and no one knew any reason why.

"The third thing is that there was already an active community committee that had been raising funds to retro-fit the playground in this park, and they were keen about renaming it Jeff Healey Park. They weren't all aware of his connections to that immediate neighbourhood and they were excited about the idea."

"So we went to the Etobicoke [York] Community Council and they approved the renaming, but with the understanding of the fundraising was that we would do; if we went ahead with this renaming, we would make additional contributions to the park to fulfill what was originally their idea of building a more accessible playground.

“It was like the stars aligned," Quail adds. "There was a park already; just been fixed up; there was a committee that was already looking at an accessible park and wanting the park to be named after probably Toronto’s most famous disabled citizen, it all lined up perfectly."

The community celebrate the unveiling of the newly named Jeff Healey Park, June 2011

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