Special place for special children

Playground plan becomes reality

By Bob Jackson



Looking at the state-of-the-art playground taking shape before her Sunday afternoon, Deborah Duffy couldn’t get over how simply the whole thing started and how long it took to get there.

But she and others already are planning to build another, larger one.

“It’s taken us three years to raise enough money to get the first one off the ground,” said Duffy, who co-founded We Can Move Too Inc. with Kim Rupe. Both women live in Youngstown and work with special-needs preschool children for the Youngstown City School District.

Duffy recalled a conversation she and Rupe had some three years ago with some parents who complained that their special-needs children had no access to a playground like other children do.

“Kim and I realized they were right, and we just looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to build a playground,’” Duffy said. “We didn’t have any idea about anything that went into it, but we knew there was a need, and we knew we were going to make it happen.”

The result of their labor was being wrapped up Sunday with the construction of a playground whose equipment is entirely adapted to accommodate children with severe special needs — even those who use wheelchairs. The playground was built by volunteers over the weekend at the Arlington Heights Recreation Center, off Wirt Street on the city’s North Side.

“The community needs this,” Duffy said as she watched a group of some 30 volunteers working in the mud, putting the finishing touches on construction. “We wanted a place where all children can play together, regardless of their physical condition.”

About $110,000 was raised through various grants and fund-raising activities to build the playground, which is made of specially designed equipment purchased from Little Tikes. All the equipment can be used by children who are in wheelchairs or who have other physical impairments. Blind children also will be able to play there, she said.

“This should be the standard for all playgrounds everywhere,” Duffy said.

The playground is open to all children, though, not just those with physical limitations. Duffy said the group saved about $30,000 by having the playground built by volunteers instead of having it professionally installed. Little Tikes supplied personnel to oversee construction.

Besides all the equipment being handicapped-accessible, the ground will be covered with a soft, rubberized surface similar to what is found on all-weather tracks. That, Duffy said, will make it easier for children who use wheelchairs to move about from one apparatus to another.

The playground won’t be able to open until that deck is poured, though, and that will depend on the weather.

“If the weather says nice, it could get done next week. If it gets bad, then it’s going to have to wait,” Duffy said.

Duffy and Rupe said about 50 people volunteered their time Saturday and Sunday to build the playground. Among them was 33-year-old David McDowell of Youngstown’s South Side, who brought his five sons to help. McDowell said he is active with youth activities and is president of a local youth football league.

“So when I heard about this project, I told them to sign me up,” McDowell said. “I’ll do anything for kids. I love to see positive things going on in the neighborhoods.”

McDowell said he likes the fact that a playground will encourage kids to be outdoors and active rather than being “couch potatoes.”

Duffy said the group’s next playground is being planned for Wick Park, also on Youngstown’s North Side, and will be about three times larger than the one in Arlington Heights. It will cost about $250,000, and funds are still being raised for that one.

“We want one there because that is the heart of our city,” Duffy said.

She said there are an estimated 168,000 special-needs children in Ohio, with about 36,000 of them in the Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana county area. She said that encompasses people with special needs from birth to age 22.

“People don’t realize that these kids are out there,” said Duffy, who works as an educational assistant at William Holmes McGuffey School on the West Side. “We need to support them and make them feel like everybody else.”

Duffy said a dedication ceremony for the new playground will be later, probably closer to spring, when the weather is better.

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