Vocational school raises funds for an inclusive playground

LYNN, Mass. (AP) — Erick Hernandez, a 17-year-old Lynn Vocational Technical Institute senior, is well-aware of the benefits that an inclusive school environment can bring.

His teenage years have included a battle with anxiety, which he first noticed in sixth grade and at times can make it difficult for him to sit through his classes.

When the stress becomes overwhelming in those instances, Hernandez said his anxiety presents itself by making him teary-eyed and visibly shaky, and disrupts his ability to breathe normally. What he's describing is what experts refer to as a "fight or flight response," or a means of self-protection triggered more easily in someone with an anxiety disorder.

It's that personal experience that prompted Hernandez to take the lead on a major community service project that his SkillsUSA chapter at Lynn Tech is spearheading this year.

"That's what led us to think about what we could do about (easing) social and emotional stress," said Hernandez, chapter president. "Some people in our chapter were already thinking about doing some kind of park project. That's what sparked the inclusivity idea.

"As we looked around, we figured out that there is such a thing as an inclusive playground and we noticed that most of (the city's) parks aren't always ADA-accessible, and we decided it might be a great idea to bring something like an inclusive park to Lynn."

Inclusive playgrounds are designed to provide a safe place where children of all abilities can play together, and are developmentally appropriate for children with and without disabilities.

Jason McCuish, a Lynn Tech teacher and SkillsUSA advisor, said the chapter decided on Harrington Elementary School for its efforts because the school has a large percentage of kids with special needs.

The SkillsUSA proposal, which has been approved by the School Committee, is not modest. The team, led by project leaders Hernandez, Brian Lopez and Luis Pineiro, is aiming to raise $300,000 to purchase and install ADA-accessible playground equipment at the school by next winter, according to McCuish.

"That's the perfect number," McCuish said. "That would really create a beautiful, inclusive playground over there at Harrington."

The team's major fundraising effort will be a community walk in December, where SkillsUSA will be seeking to collect donations, along with corporate sponsorships and pledges.

The funds will also go toward a social and emotional component to the project, which will be used to purchase emotional kits with sensory items for school classrooms.

If students start to struggle with anxiety, the items in the kit, such as a plastic bottle filled with rice that mimics the sound of rain, are aimed at helping them to calm down. Hernandez said sensory items are one of the techniques he uses to calm his anxiety.

It just so happened that the team's idea for the space came at a time when Lissa Jussaume, Harrington Elementary School principal, was already planning on transforming the school's outdoor play space into an inclusive playground.

But her proposal to the School Committee last May was modest — she received approval for a $600 project that resulted in the elementary school's hot top pavement area being repainted this summer with new games and activities, which have been a hit with students, Jussaume said.

The activities are more inclusive for students in wheelchairs and have a social and emotional component because they help develop students' fine motor and gross skills and can be used as a de-escalation technique.

Not long after her presentation to the School Committee, Jussaume said she was thrilled to receive a call from McCuish with the proposal to expand on the school's efforts, adding she jumped at the opportunity.

"We're so excited," Jussaume said. "We're getting this interactive playground where we're going to be able to accommodate all of the students at Harrington, as well as the whole community. It's giving kids a chance to be kids."

Jussaume said she is extremely thankful to SkillsUSA for coming up with the idea and thinking of Harrington. Along with the chapter's efforts to raise funds to purchase the playground equipment, she said the elementary school plans to contribute fundraising efforts of their own.

School Committee member Jared Nicholson said he thinks the project is a wonderful idea.

"It really fits into a goal of the district, to develop students' social and emotional learning, and also the core value of inclusiveness that we adopted in the district strategic plan," Nicholson said. "We are lucky to have the leadership and wherewithal of the SkillsUSA participants . It's an inspiring example for the district."

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Information from: The (Lynn, Mass.) Daily Item, http://itemlive.com