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New playground helps children of all abilities play together

Children at a North Syracuse school are celebrating the grand opening of a new playground, and the project is breaking down barriers.

Bright smiles and laughter fill the air outdoors at the North Syracuse Early Education Program. About half of the school’s students have special needs, and the project is succeeding at what it set out to do: giving students of all abilities a safe and accessible space to play together.

Physical therapist Cheri Rotelli said when she saw special needs children on the former playground, it made her emotional.

"It was frustrating to all of us to see these kids not be able to access the place that we promised them they could play at,” said Rotelli. “'Hey we're going to the playground!' only to find that they couldn't.  And they're young, and maybe they didn't realize it at the time, but as days went on, they started to learn that they couldn't go play with their friends."

With the help of her co-workers, Jennifer Fetterman and Theresa Brousseau, and the support of the school’s principal, Dawn Hussein, Rotelli spearheaded the effort to build a new accessible and inclusive playground, researching and planning for three years and reaching out to the community for help. Through grants, donations, and assistance from the school, the $300,000 dream became a reality.

"I see access,” said Rotelli, as she watched children play around her. “I see independence. I see potential. I see smiles. I just see them excited, and I don't see them limited like I did before."

The new space features a poured rubber surface, which can accommodate everything from wheels to running and sensory tunnels where kids can explore a variety of textures and visually impaired students can learn their shapes.  There are also wide, wheelchair-accessible ramps, and quiet places with benches for kids who need a break from all of the activity.

Rotelli said she hopes the new playground signifies the way the world needs to change.

"Some of us roll.  Some of us walk,” said Rotelli. “Some of us run everywhere because we can't walk well.  Some of us see with our hands.  Some of us communicate through pictures.  Some of us communicate with our hands.  That is our diversity, so I would really like the world to see the new diversity as just the varying humans that we are."

The project and fundraising aren’t over, yet. The staff would like to add more things, like overhangs, to the playground in the future.

If you would like to support future improvements to the playground, checks can be sent to the North Syracuse Early Education Program and made out to “Friends of the North Syracuse Early Education Program” with a note in the memo line for “playground.”

Jessica Cain is a freelance reporter for WRVO, covering issues around central New York. Most recently, Jessica was a package producer at Fox News in New York City, where she worked on major news events, including the 2016 presidential conventions and election. Prior to that, she worked as a reporter and anchor for multiple media outlets in central and northern New York. A Camillus native, Jessica enjoys exploring the outdoors with her daughters, going to the theater, playing the piano, and reading.