A community build was planned for Sept. 8-10 on the site of Jonathan’s Dream Reimagined in West Hartford, and by the end of the weekend the playground will be much closer to reality.
By Ronni Newton
A crew of volunteers spent the day Friday attaching panels and plastic slides on the grounds of the Mandell JCC in West Hartford, and by late afternoon, it was easy to see that Jonathan’s Dream Reimagined will soon be reality and not just a dream.
By late Friday afternoon, the playground was at least one-third completed, Amy Barzach said.
Like the mythical Phoenix rising from the ashes, something beautiful is being constructed on the site that had been taken over by nature and filled with weeds after the original Jonathan’s Dream “boundless playground” had to be torn down more than four years ago because its wooden structures were deemed unsafe.
Barzach and her husband Peter had a dream more than than 20 years ago – for a playground where children of all abilities could play together and just be children. The original Jonathan’s Dream opened in 1996, the legacy the Barzachs created to honor their son, Jonathan, who was born in 1994 with the degenerative neuromuscular disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and sadly died before his first birthday.
At the groundbreaking ceremony for the new playground in April, Barzach said that when Jonathan’s Dream came down, “it felt like someone had put a claw into my heart.” It was almost as bad as when Jonathan had died, she said.
She wasn’t sure if she could rebuild the playground, but with the assistance and coordination efforts of Ronit Shoham, and the strong support of volunteers and donors, a place that will be accessible to all children, a place where children with all types of difficulties can be free to just be children, will officially have its grand opening on Oct. 22.
Fundraising has been ongoing for several years, with nearly $1.2 million raised for the 25,000 square foot playground.
When a community build was announced, responses were immediate to the request for volunteers, and about 25 – all that could be accommodated – arrived early Friday morning. Included in that crew were 11 people from Westfarms, led by General Manager Kevin Keenan.
“They came from every department, and they were here all day,” said Keenan. He said that he and two other Westfarms employees who volunteered Friday had also participated in the community build back in 1996.
Providing a tour around the playground, Barzach was smiling ear-to-ear, pointing out the different elements, many of which are sponsored by community groups.
Atop one playground structure – accessible by ramps or stairs – will be the “David Glass Memorial Post Office.” Family and friends of former West Hartford Mayor Nan Glass – who passed away this summer – donated the play area in honor of Nan Glass’ son David, a former mailman, who was killed in a two-car crash on nearby Bloomfield Avenue in August 1998. The original Jonathan’s Dream also had a post office honoring Glass, built with donations raised by his daughters Jessica and Emily. If you look closely at the shirts the girls depicted in the display are wearing, one has an “E” and the other has a “J.”
“It’s much more than we expected,” Barzach said of the work of the volunteers and the support.
The hardscape was built earlier in the summer, with the PAC group also constructing a walking path that surrounds the perimeter. Eight-and-a-half laps around are a mile, Barzach said.
Paths also wind through the playground, and an app designed for the visually impaired will narrate the park and give instructions on how to interact as you navigate through it, Shoham said. Markings along the perimeter tell people where they are, as do “ADA bumps” or rumble strips on the path.
Another pathway is a labyrinth – one that is completely wheelchair accessible. In the center is a large abacus with stones for sliding, and there will also be a chalk wall for drawing.
A portion of the labyrinth path is dotted with stained glass images, created by an artist friend of Shoham’s, depicting nature scenes and children’s characters, including Sponge Bob. Barzach said her favorite is a dragonfly. “It’s a connection to someone you lost.”
There’a “We Saw See Saw, sponsored by the National Council for Jewish Women. The brightly-colored piece of equipment has a high back and footrests for extra stability.
Parallel play is the goal – so all children can use the equipment regardless of their restrictions. “Parallel play, parallel swings,” Shoham said, noting that several different types of swings hang next to each other so children can swing together.
Mental health is also a focus, and positive messages are promoted through the activities children engage in. “All around we’ll have positive affirmation, messages to be kind …” Shoham said. “It’s not only a playground.”
There will be about 20 benches scattered throughout, but Shoham pointed out one of her favorites, a soon-to-be-installed buddy bench.
The rainbow-colored bench bears the inscription: “One friend can change your whole life.”
Created from recycled lumber (about 540 milk jugs), the buddy bench was donated by Johnny’s Jog for Charity, a local non-profit started by West Hartford residents Dan and Laura Moran (Johnny’s parents) and Dan and Kelly Clark and, and inspired by the incredible, brave life of Johnny Moran who was born in 2007 with Wieaker Wolff Syndrome, a rare and debilitating condition. Johnny passed away at age 9 in April 2016.
A bronze plaque that will be very near and dear to Barzach, and Shoham, will also grace the playground.
“For years I wanted Jonathan’s picture here, but I could never think of the words,” Barzach said of her son who inspired the playground. She said she and Shoham sat down together one day and wrote a tribute, which Shoham then had inscribed onto a bronze plaque with Johnny’s picture. The two picked out a boulder on which to attach the plaque, and it will be located near the center of the playground.
“Today was a great day, how the community came together,” Shoham said Friday. The change from morning to afternoon was dramatic she said. “It’s really starting to look like a playground from what was just a skeleton.”
Shoham said that although the playground funds are virtually all set, the committee has decided to embark on Phase II, raising money for a permanent accessible restroom for the playground. About $150,000 more is needed, and she is excited about the matching fund donation that Bob Goldfarb has made, an offer to match donations up to $25,000. “We’re hoping that will cut in half what we need,” Shoham said.
Funds raised will also be used to start an endowment to handle future maintenance of the playground.
In less than two weeks the equipment will be completely in place and the resilient surfacing will be installed, Shoham said.
On Oct. 22, at 12:30 p.m., the playground will have its grand opening. Jonathan’s Dream has been reimagined, and soon will be more than just a dream.
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