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Drive begins to build Kirtz playground

Funding campaign aims to raise $250,000 for recess equipment

AUSTINTOWN — School recess, often the favorite “subject” of students of all grades and walks of life, inspires visions of laughter and play on colorful equipment designed for a safe and gleeful respite from screens and lessons.

But one school in the Mahoning Valley that serves students with developmental disabilities and varying degrees of mobility lacks one of the key elements to the school recess experience — playground equipment.

In a residential neighborhood of Austintown, the Leonard Kirtz School, operated by the Mahoning County Board of Developmental Disabilities, has a fenced yard for recreation edged with wooded areas. A sidewalk meanders around the area sprinkled with areas of play. The school has some adaptive swings, and some handcrafted interactive play areas, but no playground set. Short, rusted metal and preschool plastic slides more at home in a small yard or playroom are grouped together, with no majestic focal point.

But Gina Symsek, director of education for the school, is leading the charge to change that.

“One of our main project priorities is renovating our playground,” Symsek said. “Our kids have so many different levels of disability and mobility. We want something a little more interactive and accessible.”

Symsek worked as a teacher at the school about 30 years ago before leaving and returning last year to become the principal. The lack of playground equipment was an issue when she first worked there, she said.

The school needs a minimum of $250,000 to begin building the playground, though Symsek expects to add more features to the equipment as time goes on.

“It will be an ongoing process,” she said.

The initial $250,000 will cover the main equipment, all wheelchair accessible on a wheelchair accessible safety mat. Other features such as a wheelchair accessible teeter totter will come later — and the equipment is not cheap, Symsek said.

There is room to build the structure in the recess area.

Efforts began last year to raise money through the school’s playground project committee with activities such as candy sales, a T-shirt sale and “quarter wars.” “Within the building, the classrooms had a competition, and then we had a competition within the agency, to see who could collect the most quarters,” Symsek said. “We received so many, we had to put them in milk crates. We still have a mound of quarters.”

Symsek said the committee also reached out to former staff and teachers, and is reaching out to area businesses for donations.

The efforts have resulted in about $20,000 so far, Symsek said. To mark the progress, a large picture of a black and white example of the playground hangs in the school’s lobby. Each time $5,000 is raised, a new piece of the puzzle, in color, is added to the picture. Students and staff will watch as more and more of the picture comes into color as their efforts increase, giving them more of a sense of ownership over the project, Symsek said.

The DD board also is expected to contribute funding, Symsek said.

The school’s students are ages 5 to 22. Normally, about 72 students come in person, but the number is down to 47 because of remote learners.

Students sometimes take mini field trips to accessible parks in the area, including one in Canfield called Walnut Grove, where they can play on the accessible equipment, Symsek said.

rfox@tribtoday.com

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