Inclusive Playground Ribbon Cutting Celebration Brings Community Together
People of all ages and abilities gathered at Dickinson Memorial Park on Saturday, June 4, to celebrate the official ribbon cutting for a new inclusive playground that has been in the planning and development stages for more than two years.
The park now has three brand new pieces of wheelchair-accessible equipment: a glider, merry-go-round, and wheelchair swing. All have ride-on access so no transfer from a wheelchair is required.
During the event, an endless amount of laughter and joy radiated from attendees and families enjoying free ice-cream, live music by Solid Gold Times Two, and a variety of crafts and entertainment.
The occasion may have never happened had the dream of one young girl, who wanted to create positive change for her family and others like them, not been shared with the community through The Newtown Bee.
In early 2020, then 8-year-old Leah Mangino found that her special needs brother Jason, who was 4 at the time, did not have optimal options to play on at the park. Since the special needs swing was by the swings for babies, Leah could not swing with him. It also meant that Leah’s mom would have to stay with Jason as Leah played separately.
As a third-grade student at Middle Gate Elementary School, Leah wrote a “Letter to the Editor” in The Newtown Bee on March 24, 2020, to advocate for more inclusive playground equipment and to ask the community for its support. Not only did the community support her initiative, but so did the Newtown Lions Club, who spearheaded the project with the Town of Newtown.
At the ribbon cutting ceremony, Newtown Lions Club Member and Playground Upgrade Committee Chair Walter Schweikert, who is Leah’s grandfather, shared Leah’s story.
“Sometimes it takes a child to see things that we adults cannot see,” he said.
Schweikert noted that not only did his family have this dilemma when going to the park, but so have others.
“I spoke to many moms with kids in wheelchairs who told me that they had the same experience. Some of them told me they stopped coming to the park because there really wasn’t much to offer for their kids,” he noted.
Schweikert said that the new inclusive equipment will allow everyone, regardless of their abilities, to play together.
“All of them were designed with safety and durability in mind. We have something really unique here in Newtown,” he said.
‘Everyone Can Play Together’
Schweikert then brought his granddaughter Leah up to address the crowd.
“I’m so happy that my brother can play here and so can all his friends and other people with mobility issues,” Leah said.
She added, “The one thing I learned when my brother was born is that all people should be treated the same, even if they have a mental or physical disability. Everyone deserves a fun place to play and relax. One of the best things about this playground is that everyone can play together.”
Schweikert thanked First Selectman Dan Rosenthal; the Newtown Parks and Recreation Department; corporate and community donors, including The Umbrella Club of Connecticut, Newtown Savings Bank, Savings Bank of Danbury, Miltan Foundation, Eversource, Women in Newtown, Dream House Realty, and Impact Business Technology; and all the individual contributors.
Schweikert also expressed gratitude for the Newtown High School Leo Club, as well as local Daisy and Brownie Troops for conducting a variety of fundraisers for the project.
He then acknowledged the work of the Playground Upgrade Committee and its special advisor Jennifer Rogers.
Rosenthal was invited to share his sentiments on the project. He mentioned how even though the playground was Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible, it still had limitations.
“Where would we be without the ADA, but where would we be without folks like Leah to point out that the ADA only goes so far? We can certainly do a lot more,” Rosenthal said.
This inclusive playground, he said, is something we can all celebrate, and he is proud to have been involved with this project.
Rosenthal thanked the members of the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance, and Legislative Council for their help passing the funds for the project, as well as to the Parks and Recreation staff for their work.
“Most of all, I want to thank Leah for reminding me that there is a lot more we can do for folks,” he concluded.
To commemorate this town milestone, Senator Tony Hwang asked for Leah and her family — which included her father Ryan Mangino, mother Karen Schweikert-Mangino, sister Carly, brother Jason, and grandfather — to join him in front of everyone.
“This truly is a moment for the family,” he said. “I also want to recognize that through the love of a child, for her brother and those that matter in their lives, she has taught all of us an important lesson.”
Hwang presented Leah with a special proclamation from himself and State Senator Mitch Bolinsky for “having the vision and love of your brother to start this whole process.”
He said that she has made a positive difference for many people in the community.
“Never ever stop believing that one individual with the love of those around them can make all the difference in the world. So, Leah, this is your day with a lot of help from people who love you, surrounding you right now,” Hwang said.
Leah’s parents both spoke from the heart about how proud they are of their daughter and how thankful they are for everyone’s support.
“This has changed not only Jason’s life, but I have seen so many of his friends here. It means so much to us that we can be a family at the park. It is something so simple, but it’s huge,” Karen said.
Bolinsky said Leah voicing a simple ask made a difference and that his “hat goes off” to her.
“Having children play together on the playground, that is what life is about. This is Newtown. This is inclusion,” he added.
Bolinsky then presented special citations on behalf of the Connecticut General Assembly to Newtown Lions Club, Newtown Parks & Recreation, and the Town of Newtown.
Town’s Youngest Leo
When Newtown Parks and Recreation Director Amy Mangold spoke to the crowd, she said, “It’s mornings and events like this that make me feel so blessed to be director of Newtown Parks and Recreation.”
She emphasized that the members of the Playground Upgrade Committee were a pleasure to work with for this project. She also brought up Assistant Director of Parks Carl Samuelson, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Aaron Britton, and Rogers with her family to thank them for their help.
Mangold added that working with the Newtown Lion’s Club was a joyful experience.
“When you shared Leah’s idea with me, Lions, to make this playground a truly adaptive play space, I was thrilled. This will make our community a more inclusive and welcoming space,” she said.
Newtown Lions Club President Oscar De Los Santos spoke next and said that this project was able to come to fruition, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, because “We are a community of doers.”
Lions Club District Governor Lori Anne Bennison made a special recognition for Leah.
“I want to thank you. You are very inspiring. I would like to give you my Leo pin and I’d like you to be invited into our organization, because you are truly a leader. You will be the youngest Leo in Newtown,” she said.
Bennison then said that the Newtown Parks and Recreation members and Rosenthal are also honorary Lions for their work on this project.
When the speeches concluded, everyone gathered in front of the playground entrance for the official ribbon cutting, where Leah did the honors.
There was a roar of applause and cheers as the ribbon was cut in two, then Schweikert encouraged everyone to go enjoy the free ice-cream on site.
Due to some weather delays the rubberized ground had not been installed at the time of the event. Once it is completed, though, the inclusive playground will be open to the public.
Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at email@example.com.