State of Play
When Jill Asher walked away from a successful marketing and public relations career in Silicon Valley, it wasn’t just to play around, even though she did end up helping people swing, spin, and slide. Asher DC’92 co-founded the Magical Bridge Foundation, which designs and builds playgrounds everyone can use—including high-energy teens, seniors, wheelchair users, and children and adults with autism.
“My career had been about marketing and pitching great technology,” Asher says. “As wonderful as that was, I know what I am doing now is changing the world and changing it for the better.”
Asher became involved with this mission in 2008, when it was just a fledging local movement in Palo Alto. Her friend, Olenka Villarreal, was raising a disabled daughter and learning firsthand how conventional playgrounds—even those compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—are often confined, busy, complicated, and downright unpleasant for people with disabilities.
Villarreal gathered volunteers to brainstorm a new type of playground that would be safe, creative, and usable for all. The team researched and raised money for seven years before unveiling their first masterpiece in 2015. “Within a week of opening the playground we were flooded with requests from people all over the world wanting Magical Bridge playgrounds,” Asher says.
Located in Palo Alto, the first Magical Bridge playground now draws 25,000 visitors every month. The site covers about an acre of land and offers distinct play zones for swinging, spinning, and sliding, along with retreat spaces for resting. All of the playground equipment is fully accessible, including a merry-go-round flush with the ground and a two-story playhouse, a treehouse, and a slide mound that all welcome wheelchairs. And every walkway is wide, smooth, and seamless so people can easily move from one section to another.
Best of all, the playground draws people of all ages and abilities from throughout the community.
The project has drawn robust media coverage, including a spot on PBS Newshour, as well as a TEDx talk featuring Asher. “I like to think of a playground as a metaphor for the type of community and society that we all want to live in,” she said during the talk. “It’s one of kindness and compassion, respect and dignity for everyone.”
Seeing a widespread need, Villarreal and Asher made a decision. They sought additional backing from funders so they could leave their jobs and work full-time creating more playgrounds. As the foundation’s executive director, Asher handles donor engagement, working with major corporations like Google and LinkedIn. She also oversees marketing and messaging, telling the Magical Bridge story while developing ideas for programs.
Propelled by its initial success, the foundation has eleven new projects in the works, from Northern California to Singapore. Meanwhile, Asher and Villarreal, who is the CEO, joke that they are earning the salaries they made in the early 1990s. But that matters little. “I work with people I adore and feel like they are my family now,” Asher says. “When you see the profound impact the playground has on the community, you just know it’s the right thing to do.”
Asher’s Rutgers roots run deep. Her mother, the late Joyce Hoffspiegel NCAS’66, GSN’81, earned her doctorate in psychology from Rutgers University–Newark.
Asher says her own Rutgers experience helped her develop the courage and creative flair for her work at Magical Bridge. As an undergraduate, she marched in Take Back the Night rallies and helped raise funds for Lighthouse for the Blind. As an economics major, she learned new ways to view the world and human behavior. “Rutgers played a big role in my life,” Asher says. “I got fired up and saw I could be effective working together with people, raising funds, and raising awareness.”