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A Caring Community Creates a Playground for Children with Disabilities

The Happy Ending to the Evanston Park School Playground Story

Published in ChicagoNow, October 18, 2018

“The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.” — Marian Wright Edelman

The school playground was usually empty. The swing frame held no swings. The wooden climbing structure was decaying, faded and cracked with age. The wood chip surface was thin and unusable for children whose wheelchairs and walkers couldn’t be pushed across it. An Evanston school serving children with significant disabilities had a playground many of its children couldn’t use.

A little over two years ago, I wrote about the Park School playground. Park is part of the Evanston/Skokie District 65 school system. It serves seventy students, ages 3 to 22, who need a self-contained educational facility for reasons of safety, health, and/or the need for an intensive therapeutic environment. The school has a small PTA of parents dealing with a multitude of issues raising children with significant special needs, and with a limited capacity to raise the money needed for a playground renovation. But a dedicated group of community members stepped up to raise the funds needed so Park children with serious physical impairments could access the playground equipment for therapies as well as for sensory breaks. This little school, with the help of the Evanston community, managed to raise some big bucks to make its dream of a fully accessible playground a reality.

There were almost 500 individual donors to the campaign, a grassroots effort of people giving what they could to raise over $170,000 in total. While there were a few larger gifts of $25,000, $15,000, and $10,000, most of the playground funding came from these small donations. At a ribbon cutting ceremony, Park PTA president, Anna Guillemin, thanked the committee of caring community members who drew up plans and, in April 2017, launched the campaign for Park’s Playground for All. These dedicated citizens who volunteered their time and expertise to help included Uma Amuluru, Julie Cutter, Jarrett Dapier, Mara Jauntirans, Stephanie Kimmel, Aimee King, Iden Nowlin, Heather Schaffer, Katie Smith, Margaret Storey, and Jack Theis.

Park School also had wonderful support from local and family foundations. The school received a matching donation from Noah’s Playground to start the fundraising campaign. Several granting agencies also contributed to the cause: Beth Emet Synagogue, the Evanston Community Foundation, the Franklin Square Foundation, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, the Knights of Columbus Council 1077, the Kuhn Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, and the Rotary Club of Evanston. Many local businesses contributed services: DB3 Donuts, the Evanston Athletic Club, Evereve, La Principal (the biggest Taco Tuesday on record!), master puppeteer Marilyn Price, Orange Theory, the Wine Goddess, and Temperance Bar, which donated its space for a fundraiser.

Last winter when the dream of raising enough money for the playground still seemed very far off, a series of extraordinary private gifts lifted the committee’s spirits and made it seem possible that the plan would succeed. Paul and Mary Finnegan and an anonymous donor reinvigorated the campaign. Valentine’s Day tributes honoring Park students brought the group closer to its goal. As deadlines for signing contracts approached, a remarkable, unexpected gift from Gene and Jean Patterson, grandparents of a Park student, made the dream a reality. All in all, it was quite a feat by the Evanston community to raise money for this project.

It was particularly inspiring that young Evanston students contributed to the community effort. Guillemin spoke of children, many of whom made friends at Park, who “saw an inequity, and took ownership of the problem.” Maya Chung, Franny Dapier, Gabi Evans, Maddie Horvath, and Emma Socas contributed to the Park School Fun Fest 2017; Juliana Nagle sold shaved ice on Memorial Day; Ali Cutter and Isabel Straus raised funds as part of their bat mitzvah celebrations; Dillon King contributed donations in honor of his twelfth birthday; and Meghan Vanasco raised money through a bake sale. Declan Madden and the Orrington School fourth graders raised hundreds of dollars with another bake sale, while Orrington fifth graders raised money in their Pennies for Park campaign. Dewey School first graders from Jamie Cohen’s class made Park’s playground a year-long project, raising funds by selling friendship bracelets. Guillemin was especially moved by the efforts of the community’s children, telling them,

“You may not fully understand this now (but maybe your parents will), that it provides me personally with unspeakable comfort to know my son will grow up to share his world with peers like you.”

Anna Guillemin, whose son Max is nine and in fourth grade, and has been at Park since pre-kindergarten, shared some very personal stories of the effort to create an accessible playground for Park School. One was of Kathy and Mike Spellman, whose daughter was a student at Park from age three until her death at age sixteen.

“When a fund in her memory grew to unanticipated proportions, the Spellmans donated it to the PTA to purchase a swing in Abigail’s name, because she had passionately loved swinging. This became the seed money for our entire renovation, and once the plan took shape, the Spellman family fundraised to double the amount. Our beautiful bank of new swings is dedicated to Abigail. We are so grateful that the Spellman’s vision has finally been realized.”

Guillemin thanked everyone involved, including PTAs from other Evanston schools who donated to the Park PTA in the spirit of equity and inclusion. But she had special praise for the efforts of Julie Cutter, who planned fundraisers, wrote grants, met with donors, vetted contracts, and kept her eye on the prize throughout the entire process.

“In 2008 Julie and David Cutter completed the building of an accessible playground by the Lighthouse Beach in memory of their son Noah, born with multiple disabilities, who lived to age two… Julie’s son Zach, Noah’s brother, asked her when we were touring Park School last year: ‘Is this where Noah would have gone?’ The answer was a resounding yes. We can all be tremendously proud of the fact that we have a school in our own home district for kids like Noah, a school for kids with multiple physical and/or cognitive disabilities, for kids with complex medical conditions, a school with an exceptional, caring staff where students can learn, grow, and make friends.”

The corner by the saucer swing, as yet undeveloped, will be dedicated to Noah’s memory and named Noah’s Nook.

Two years ago, I was disheartened by the sight of a rundown playground that didn’t even provide access to the children who needed to use it. Kids with disabilities are often invisible in our communities. Now, thanks to an amazing effort by a truly compassionate and caring community, these kids have the playground they need and deserve. Our community has told the students of Park School, “We see you, and we care.”

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead


by Laurie Levy
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