Jonathan’s Dream Reimagined, a revolutionary and completely inclusive playground that built on the site of the original Jonathan’s Dream at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford, had its official grand opening on Sunday.
By Ronni Newton
It has been built and they are playing.
Moments after the ribbon was cut for Jonathan’s Dream Reimagined on Sunday afternoon, kids of all ages and abilities passed under the rainbow arch and, wide-eyed and smiling, began playing on West Hartford’s completely accessible and inclusive playground.
The dream that Amy Barzach and her husband Peter had more than than 20 years ago – for a playground where children of all abilities could play together and just be children – is reality again six months after the groundbreaking and several years after the original Jonathan’s Dream had to be torn down because it was not longer safe.
Hundreds gathered on the grounds of the Mandell JCC for the grand opening ceremony Sunday, emceed by Joe D’Ambrosio.
In addition to Barzach and her “partner in good,” Volunteer Project Manager Ronit Shoham, special guest speakers included UConn men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie, West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor, State Sen. Beth Bye, former Mandell JCC president Joyce Mandell, Tiffany Harris of Shane’s Inspiration, and Kevin Thrum from The Clinton Foundation.
The ribbon-cutting was a joyful event that inspired tears of joy from many who attended, especially as Barzach’s children (Alyssa, Michael, and Daniel), and their friend Michael Steiner – joined by their parents – sang “Play Together,” a song written about Jonathan’s Dream by Grammy award-winning songwriter Josh Kear.
Amy Barzach recalled how Kear wrote the song, stanza-by-stanza, and his wife sang it back to him – as they sat together watching children play at the original Jonathan’s Dream and she shared the story of her son Jonathan, and how she developed the vision for a playground where all children could have fun and just be children.
Amy Barzach thanked all who contributed, the volunteers who helped build it as well as the donors like Ollie whose fully-accessible Kevin’s Kourt” was the first court of its type to be funded through the Kevin Ollie Charity Classic. The offer to build the court in 2014 helped provide the impetus and renewed energy for the entire project to move forward, Amy Barzach said.
The $1.2 million project could not have come to fruition without generous support of so many, Amy Barzach said. Shane’s Inspiration donated design services for the playground, and the PAC Group donated more than $100,000 in construction management services to the project. Bye and former State Rep. Brian Becker helped secure a state grant of $500,000, and the town donated $50,000.
All who donated more than $500 will be recognized on permanent signage to be installed in the spring.
“We couldn’t have a better home,” Amy Barzach said of the Mandell JCC, which leases the property to Jonathan’s Dream for $1 per year.
“It has been a great journey … and Amy’s definitely an incredibly lifelong friend that I’ve made,” Shoham said, adding that reaching this day was achieved with “a lot of help from a lot of people.”
Cantor read a proclamation on behalf of the town celebrating the reopening of Jonathan’s Dream, and said personally she was feeling the sense of warmth, community, and acceptance.
“I’m brimming with pride for what was accomplished 23 years ago and what was re-accomplished in a more inclusive and even better way, by even more touches in the community,” Cantor said. “I’m just so thrilled.”
Cantor said she recalled bringing her children to the original Jonathan’s Dream, and being especially grateful for the accommodating elements that allowed all of her kids to play together when her youngest son, who turned 21 yesterday, was recovering from his third open heart surgery for a congenital defect.
Bye presented citations on behalf of the state to both Amy Barzach and Shoham, and said that Jonathan’s Dream is a great investment.
“What a community we live in,” Bye said. “This is giving upon giving.”
Mandell said that when Amy Barzach first approached the JCC Board about building Jonathan’s Dream, her reaction was: “Accessible playground? What does that mean?” Mandell said she thought the town’s multiple parks were already accessible, but Amy Barzach responded, “Not for a child in a wheelchair.”
“Today is also about ‘courting’ hope,” D’Ambrosio said as he introduced Ollie.
“We didn’t see the weeds in this playground, we saw the possibilities,” Ollie told the crowd of his decision to build the first Kevin’s Kourt accessible basketball court at Jonathan’s Dream Reimagined. “This is a dream that came true.”
The Kevin’s Kourt in West Hartford is the fourth one in the state to open, but it was the first one that was funded.
Ollie said that the biggest commodity is what you give back to others, and he is proud to support Jonathan’s Dream and give the Kevin’s Kourt as a gift to the community.
“It’s all about giving every child a shot, and I mean everyone,” Ollie said. He said he will be partnering with the Ryan Martin Foundation wheelchair basketball camps to set up clinics at the Kevin’s Kourt.
Rabbi Jim Rosen gave the invocation when the original Jonathan’s Dream opened in 1996 and also spoke at the groundbreaking in April. He said this project was a great example of the “spirit of overflowing generosity and determination.”
The Barzach family added some soil from the original Jonathan’s Dream playground, and children from the community helped cut the ribbon under the rainbow arch. Ollie, assisted by Cantor and others, attached the final net to one of the baskets on Kevin’s Kourt.
As the festivities ended, the kids took over. Fulfilling the spirit of the playground, they played.
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