Video report by Jeevan Vittal, Fox CT
Text by Julie Stagis, Hartford Courant
WEST HARTFORD — Two weeks before what would have been Jonathan Barzach’s 20th birthday, his parents and volunteers are hard at work to bring Jonathan’s Dream II, a new “boundless playground,” to life.
The original Jonathan’s Dream — a wooden, wheelchair-accessible playground — was built by hundreds of volunteers in 1996 in honor of Jonathan, who died from complications of spinal muscular atrophy in January 1995, when he was nine months old. Jonathan would have been confined to a wheelchair if he had lived longer.
The Mandell Jewish Community Center of Greater Hartford and Jonathan’s parents, Amy and Peter Barzach, announced last May that they planned to modernize the playscape and held a community brainstorming session. The original playground, located on the grounds of the JCC, was torn down because it had outlived its useful life.
Leadership Greater Hartford, a nonprofit organization that provides community leadership training, then formed the “Jonathan’s Dream Team” task force, which consists of individuals who have gone through its Quest and Third Age Initiative programs. In conjunction with the JCC, the group is working to plan fundraising events and to get the community involved in the project.
Having to tear down the original playground “was heartbreaking, but almost immediately afterwards, the JCC said, ‘Hey, we can’t let this community treasure go by the wayside,'” said Amy Barzach, who founded the nonprofit Boundless Playgrounds after the first Jonathan’s Dream was built. She served as executive director until 2008.
When Leadership of Greater Hartford and Shane’s Inspiration, a Los Angeles nonprofit that develops accessible playgrounds, got involved with the modernization project, Barzach said she was even more inspired. Shane’s Inspiration designed the playground for free.
“The next thing you know, there was such positive momentum,” she said. “I couldn’t feel sad anymore.”
The new playground takes the goals of Jonathan’s Dream and bumps them to the next level.
“When it was first started, we called it a wheelchair accessible playground. There was not much like that in the country, it was one of the first,” Barzach said.
When it was built, Jonathan’s Dream was one of a few playgrounds in the Northeast that complied with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
“The thing that’s interesting about Jonathan’s Dream II, we were able to incorporate new ideas for kids with a variety of different disabilities,” Barzach said.
And not only will the playground have elements that will be interesting and useful for children with physical, developmental and other disabilities, but it will have features that encourage kids to be active, organizers said.
“We’re going to create an accessible playground, but it’ll be an active, interactive accessible playground,” said Project Manager Ronit Shoham. “Combating the obesity issue, we thought that that would be a newer concept in the accessibility world.”
The playground will include a “tree house village, an incredible, interactive beautiful area for kids of all abilities to climb up high and be the king of the mountain,” Shoham said.
A new “zipline” will be among the first of its kind, with side-by-side tracks: one with a chair for “able-bodied” children, and the other with a high-backed support seat for children with disabilities, Shoham said.
Plans show a “discovery garden,” with things to hear and touch, and “Beluga Island,” a nod to baby Jonathan’s trip to Mystic Aquarium days before he died.
“Jonathan’s Dream Team” is currently planning events and developing a marketing strategy and fundraising plan, member Robert Rudewicz of Newington said. The project is expected to cost $1 million.
Rudewicz said he was hesitant to join the task force at first because of the level of commitment required, but the more he learned about Jonathan’s Dream, the more interested he became.
“People with physical challenges, developmental disabilities, they deserve to have a place to go,” he said. “They deserve to have fun and experience things that most of us simply take for granted.”
Working on the project “is a way to give back in kind of a special way to a special cause,” Rudewicz said. “It’ll be a challenging project, but well worth it when we see it completed.”
For more information or to volunteer for the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations to the Jonathan’s Dream Fund can be sent c/o Mandell JCC, Zachs Campus, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, CT 06117.
For more information on the project, click here.