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Lions Club Hopes To Enhance Playground Experiences For More Children



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A letter to the editor of The Newtown Bee from a Middle Gate Elementary School student has launched a brand new project by Newtown Lions Club.

Thanks to Leah Mangino, the local Lions are hoping to fund additions to one of Newtown’s parks. They are also hoping, according to the chairman of the club’s new Enhanced Playground Project Committee, to either help with a full restoration or at least donate special needs equipment at another.

The Newtown Bee received a letter in March from Leah, who was at the time a third grade student. She is also the older sister to a boy with special needs, she said.

“Imagine a playground where not everyone has something to do,” she wrote (“Wanted: A Playground For All,” March 24, 2020). “Kids with special needs don’t have enough to do.”

Leah’s letter asked readers to consider what life is like for children who cannot use most of the equipment at Dickinson and Treadwell memorial parks. She also challenged readers to consider what it is like for parents of special needs children, especially if they are trying to watch over more than one child.

“If a parent has a child with special needs and an 8-year-old, like my mom does, she has to stay by the baby swings and not with her other kid,” Leah wrote in part. The swings for special needs children at Dickinson Park are near the baby swings.

“This means we can’t stay together,” she added.

Beyond the issue of swings not being placed together, Leah’s letter also points out that the town’s parks need equipment “that is wheelchair accessible and lets all kids play together.”

She mentions in her letter “three great pieces of equipment” she would like to see installed in the town parks. Leah said she spoke with a physical therapist and an occupational therapist, who were able to offer suggestions concerning the equipment that would help children with special needs.

Within a few days Leah’s letter received a response (“Make A Good Thing Happen,” March 31, 2020) from Sheila Gervais, who identified herself as a special needs monitor with All-Star Transportation. Gervais commended Leah for her “wonderful goal of which can all be part.”

Leah’s grandfather, Walt Schweikert, is a longstanding and active member of the local Lions Club. He, too, responded to Leah’s letter, both with his own letter to the newspaper (“Swinging Into Action,” May 21, 2020) and the formal launch of the local club’s newest project.

Newtown Lions Club is planning to raise funds that will add the much-needed playground equipment to Dickinson Memorial Park. Ultimately the club would like to help replace the playground at Treadwell Memorial Park, or at least add special needs equipment there, as well.

The first step will cumulatively cost between $50,000 and $60,000.

“When Leah brought this up initially, I brought it to the Lions,” Schweikert said over the phone Monday morning, June 15. He and his granddaughter called in to The Newtown Bee to talk about the project.

“We tried to put some guidelines around the thing, and figure out a realistic scope,” he added.

Schweikert said that he and others have reached out to Carl Samuelson, the assistant director of parks for Newtown Parks & Recreation. It was Samuelson’s guidance that helped the club determine its first steps, Schweikert said.

In a conversation with The Newtown Bee on June 17, Samuelson confirmed that costs to either add equipment or fully replace a playground will indeed be high.

“Because Dickinson is already compliant, we are looking to add features there, to start with,” he said Wednesday morning. “We went above and beyond at Dickinson at what was needed” for ADA compliance when the Elm Drive park’s playground was replaced in 2014, he said.

The Parks assistant director said that the addition of three pieces of special needs equipment could be less than what the Lions are hoping to raise, but that would also mean a lesser experience for park visitors.

“Just like anything else, you can go and buy a cheap car or you can buy a really expensive car,” Samuelson said. “They have some playground pieces that are $3,000 to $5,000, but the play value can be minimal.

“You get the ones that are $15,000 to $20,000 each, and the play value is much more inclusive,” he added.

Dickinson Memorial Park already has an existing pathway that offers ease of getting into and out of the playground, Samuelson mentioned.

“We know that park is already totally compliant. We felt adding features there was the better bet,” he said.

The new equipment, Schweikert said, will make the playground enjoyable for more children.

“What Dickinson has is some pieces of equipment that are moderately useful to children in a wheelchair, but they’re all passive,” he said. “We are looking for active, motion-oriented kinds of devices, like a special wheelchair merry-go-round, so that the children get motion, where they can play to their ability.”

Such equipment will allow special needs children to “play with their siblings and friends who are able-bodied,” Schweikert said. “We want something that a wheelchair kid and an able-body kid can both use. That would be ideal.”

Samuelson agreed, saying certain pieces of playground equipment allow all children to “use it simultaneously.”

Treadwell Considerations

The town’s second park, on Philo Curtis Road, will need extensive work to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Schweikert and Samuelson both said.

“We found out that Treadwell, the park the Lions built 20 years ago, would need to be replaced completely, because it’s no longer compliant with ADA rules,” Schweikert said this week. “That priced it out of what we thought we could do.”

Adding pieces to either or both of the playgrounds at Treadwell is something to be considered down the road, Samuelson noted.

“Long term, we discussed when we do update Treadwell Park, they would be interested in having a component or two as well,” he said.

Schweikert agreed, noting that if the Lions raise enough money, “we’ll move on to Treadwell in the future.”

Fundraising Underway

After speaking with The Newtown Bee Monday morning, Leah Mangino and her sister Carly donated to the park fund. The girls emptied their piggy banks, and combined they added $48.40 to the Lions Club Enhanced Playground Project Fund.

Neil Randle, a member of the project committee, accepted the donation on behalf of the club.

In addition to Schweikert and Randle, the new committee includes Lions Club members David Coyle and Skip Sims. Resident Jen Rogers, who has a special needs child, was also invited to join the effort.

“We brought Jen in because of her perspective,” said Schweikert. Rogers was able to identify groups that the Lions could reach out to, and she has been invaluable with equipment suggestions.

“Most of it was based on her recommendations,” he noted.

With pandemic precautions in place, Newtown Lions Club is currently unable to do special events or even hold public collections for its playground fund. For now, the club is counting on outside donations to fill the special account.

“In most years, it would have been easy to count on a donation from the Lions toward this fundraising effort,” Schweikert said. “This is, of course, not like most years.”

Two of the club’s largest annual fundraising efforts — The Great Pootatuck Duck Race and the Mustang Raffle — have been greatly reduced due to COVID-19. Mustang raffle tickets, usually sold at special events and around the region, are being sold online only.

The Duck Race, already postponed from its original May date, is tentatively rescheduled for September. Schweikert fears that big event may end up being canceled, however.

“So the charity budget of this coming year is going to be a fraction of what it was in previous years,” he said.

Once pandemic safety measures are lifted, Randle hopes to host a game night, according to Schweikert.

Until then, donations can be made securely through Newtown Lions Club’s website, at newtownlions.com. A section of the website’s landing page has been devoted to the project.

Newtown Lions Club member Neil Randle, seated, accepts donations from Leah Mangino, center, and her sister, Carly, on June 15. Randle is a member of the club’s new Enhanced Playground Project Committee. Leah and Carly are hoping others will follow their lead in donating funds to help more children, including their brother, further enjoy playgrounds in Newtown parks. —photos courtesy Karen Mangino
Leah Mangino and Walt Schweikert did a phone interview with The Newtown Bee on June 15, when they talked about a new project Newtown Lions Club has undertaken.
A letter by Leah Mangino, left, has sparked a new project by Newtown Lions Club. The Enhanced Playground Project was inspired by Jason, Leah’s little brother, who needs special equipment to enjoy local playgrounds. On the right is Carly Mangino, Leah’s younger sister and Jason’s twin.
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