March 13, 2016 12:00 a.m.
A sea of volunteers clad in blue shirts clutched cups of coffee and power tools in the mid-morning hours Saturday at Challenged Child and Friends
Some had come from California, others from Minnesota, Tennessee and Florida, while many were volunteers from here in Gainesville. They all volunteered to see a project come to fruition after years of fundraising and planning.
Ada’s Playground was dedicated and built Saturday in memory of a former student at the nonprofit preschool. Ada Abbruzzese spent two years at Challenged Child and Friends before she died on Nov. 17, 2013. But her parents Molly and Tom Abbruzzese wanted to make sure her legacy lived on, while giving back to the school that did so much for them.
“Every day we walked through the doors of this school, we always thought what amazing things this school did for us and for our daughters,” Molly Abbruzzese said. “It was about time we tried to figure out what we could do for this school.”
The Abruzzeses raised more than $70,000 through their own efforts, and the school secured a grant for $30,000 to build the playground. The volunteer efforts eliminated thousands in construction costs, and final donations from the school’s board made the project a reality.
The playground will support child development, improve gross motor skills and increase muscle tone. It is accessible to children of all capabilities, with a wide ramp for children in wheelchairs a smooth surface for walkers that will be poured Wednesday.
Sen. Butch Miller expressed his gratitude to the Abbruzzeses, the volunteers and all those with Challenged Child for what they do in the community. The Miller family first connected with Challenged Child nearly 20 years ago when their eldest son Cole needed their services.
“This place is bigger than a school,” Miller said. “This piece of the community is a unique opportunity for many, many people. ... This is a special, special place for me and my family.”
The current class of Leadership Hall County selected the build as its major project for the year.
“Think about these students when they get dropped off and they come here, they get to look at their playground before they go into school,” said John Simpson with Leadership Hall. “And it’s not just their playground, it’s Ada’s playground too.”
Ada was born in 2009, weighing in at 3 pounds 12 ounces, with numerous challenges, including a heart defect, kidney defect, chromosomal abnormalities, hearing impairment, optic disk malformations and growth hormone deficiency, to name a few.
“There was no child documented globally with her particular translocation,” Abbruzzese said of Ada’s chromosomal abnormalities.
The Abbruzzeses were warned their eldest daughter would never learn to walk or talk, but at Challenged Child, she learned to sign, “I really love you,” and say “Momma” and “Dadda.”
Ada spent two years at the school. Two months before she died, Ada was walking without a walker while holding a hand. She had just turned 4 years old.
Challenged Child interim executive director Cathy Drerup said the school “wraps around your heart,” and depends on the generosity of the community to succeed.
“This community build is exactly what has kept Challenged Child strong,” she said. “We don’t even know how to do what we do without the community. We don’t know how you could ever separate that.”
Molly Abbruzzese said the playground does not finish the needs of the school, and she encouraged those present to continue to give it support.
“This playground is empowering inclusive friendships and play,” Drerup said. “And I know that is the spirit of the family, that all children can participate, and have friendships and feel joy and happiness.”