People: 'Whirlwind on Wheels' crusaded to make trails, parks accessible to all
Friends and admirers of Phyllis Cangemi will gather Saturday, July 14, to celebrate the life and work of the small, passionate, determined woman who overcame her own disability to help make nature, parks and open spaces in San Mateo County, California, and around the world accessible to others with disabilities.
Ms. Cangemi, who fought to save "The Hill" in Menlo Park before founding Whole Access, an organization dedicated to opening nature to people of all abilities, actually died over a year ago in December 2005. She was 59.
The celebration will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. at St. Bede's Episcopal Church, 2650 Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. People will share their thoughts and memories about Phyllis and her untiring work on behalf of people with disabilities.
"Phyllis built a community of friends, neighbors and colleagues around the world who joined in her mission to preserve open space and make it accessible to all," said Debbie Wright of Menlo Park, her devoted companion and housemate over many years.
A cruel fate brought Phyllis Cangemi to Menlo Park in 1980. She grew up in Levittown on Long Island, where she learned to love nature in the fields and woods next to the subdivision. She married young and embarked on a promising future until 1976. Her husband was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease; within a year, Phyllis had it too.
The couple moved to California in 1980, he to Los Angeles to be with his family, she to Menlo Park to get treatment at Stanford.
Living in West Menlo with Ms. Wright, an old hiking buddy from New York, Ms. Cangemi was soon drawn into the fight to save a patch of open space at the head of Valparaiso Avenue from development.
While Ms. Wright knocked on doors and carried petitions, Ms. Cangemi manned the telephone from her bed, calling the likes of David Packard for support. "I became a telephone demon," she told the Almanac proudly in a 2001 interview.
As a result of the campaign, "The Hill" now has town houses at the top, but its steep face is a city park. "It increased public recognition of the importance of urban open space," she said.
In 1983, Ms. Cangemi attended the dedication of the Tanoak Whole Access Nature Trail in Memorial Park in her wheelchair — and got hooked.
Pretty soon she was coordinating docents to show the trail, which had special audio messages for the blind, to groups with special needs. She organized workshops on designing trails for people with disabilities. She founded Whole Access to make nature more accessible to everybody, not just those with disabilities.
For the next 20 years Ms. Cangemi, increasingly frail but utterly determined, pursued her vision of making parks and other open space facilities accessible to everyone, not just the disabled, but moms with strollers, grandparents, the old and frail, the young and healthy.
Working out of a tiny house in Redwood City crammed with files and computers, Ms. Cangemi badgered park professionals into recognizing the need for access and developing methods for improving the park experience for everybody.
She also recruited people to volunteer and support her projects. "It was just amazing the people she had working with her," said Ms. Wright. Among Ms. Cangemi's early achievements, the playground at Flood Park in Menlo Park, and the wheelchair trail around Alpine Pond in the Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve are still enjoyed by many.
"You don't go to a park for one thing," she told the Almanac. "When accessibility is incorporated into the system, everybody benefits — people with disabilities and people without disabilities."
Often called a ''whirlwind on wheels" for her energy aboard her three-wheeled scooter, Ms. Cangemi carried her message far beyond San Mateo County, to park planners and designers around the country and beyond.
In Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Ms. Cangemi was a catalyst for a program that designed trails to maximize accessibility while protecting resources. "Making trails accessible also improves the experience for all and reduces maintenance," she said.
Despite failing health, Ms. Cangemi carried her message around the world. In 1992, she spoke at the World Congress of National Parks and Protected Areas in Caracas, Venezuela, and later the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. She has visited Russia and inspired a similar organization there.
Ms. Cangemi also earned a host of awards. She was inducted into the San Mateo County Women's Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2001 she won the MAGIC Heroes Award from the Avant! Foundation. "Due to Phyllis' work thousands of trails, parks, pools and playgrounds are enjoyed by all," the citation reads. "Literally the world is a better place because of her efforts."
Rep. Anna Eshoo wrote in support of the nomination, "Through sheer determination, she has bettered the lives of thousands of individuals with disabilities."
Ms. Cangemi is survived by her brothers, Mark Brecher of Ossining, New York; Ronald Brecher of New York City; and Howard Brecher in Germany.
Friends suggest donations to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, 1700 South El Camino Real, Suite 300, San Mateo, CA 94402; or the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, 1029 J Street, Suite 120, Sacramento, CA 95814.
For information, call Ms. Wright at 327-1565.