‘A place that will change lives’

Newark cel­e­brates open­ing of Pre­ston’s Play­ground

Newark Post - - FRONT PAGE - By JOSH SHAN­NON jshan­[email protected]­pub.com

For Deb Bue­naga, it all started with a dream – a dream that her son, Pre­ston, could have a way to play on a play­ground with other kids.

That dream snow­balled into an un­prece­dented com­mu­nity-wide phil­an­thropic ef­fort and cul­mi­nated Mon­day morn­ing with the grand open­ing of Pre­ston’s Play­ground at the base of the Newark Reser­voir.

“Ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ently abled, and we all want to play to­gether,” Bue­naga said to a crowd of more than 100 peo­ple who gath­ered to cel­e­brate the play­ground’s com­ple­tion. “It’s not a play­ground for chil­dren with spe­cial needs; it’s a play­ground for ev­ery­body.”

The 6,000-square-foot play­ground is de­signed with ac­ces­si­bil­ity in

mind so that all kids, re­gard­less of their abil­i­ties, are able to take part in the fun. Ramps al­low kids in wheel­chairs and on walk­ers to get up on the plat­forms. The ground is cov­ered with a rub­ber­ized sur­face, rather than mulch, which is hard to nav­i­gate in a wheelchair.

The ef­fort to build the play­ground dates back to 2015 when Bue­naga and her fam­ily vis­ited an ac­ces­si­ble play­ground in Vir­ginia and de­cided Newark needed some­thing sim­i­lar. Pre­ston, who was 16 when the project be­gan and re­cently turned 20, has mi­to­chon­drial dis­ease and spends much of his time in a wheelchair.

Bue­naga en­listed the help of Nic DeCaire, a Main Street gym owner with an un­canny abil­ity to mar­shal com­mu­nity sup­port for his char­i­ta­ble ef­forts. To­gether, they em­barked on an am­bi­tious en­deavor to raise more than $500,000 to make the play­ground a re­al­ity.

The city of Newark quickly signed on, agree­ing to host the play­ground on city park­land, and later agreed to fund the wa­ter and sewer in­fra­struc­ture needed for hand­i­capped-ac­ces­si­ble bath­rooms at the site.

As word of the ef­fort spread, ex­cite­ment in the com­mu­nity grew and thou­sands of Ne­wark­ers played a part in rais­ing the money.

Large dona­tions, such as a $100,000 grant from the Long­wood Foun­da­tion cer­tainly helped, but the ma­jor­ity of the funds came from small dona­tions. DeCaire es­ti­mated that al­most 100 busi­nesses helped out, ei­ther by do­nat­ing money or host­ing guest bar­tend­ing events, golf out­ings, wing-eat­ing con­tests and other fundrais­ers. Lo­cal schools pitched in, rais­ing money through runs and dress-down days. DeCaire’s daugh­ter con­trib­uted $100 through sell­ing cook­ies out­side Na­tional 5 and 10.

When it came time to build the play­ground, the com­mu­nity stepped up again. With the help of city work­ers and a con­tracted con­struc­tion com­pany, 180 vol­un­teers worked through scorch­ing heat in Au­gust to put to­gether the play­ground equip­ment.

“Pre­ston’s Play­ground is truly a Newark com­mu­nity project,” Parks and Re­cre­ation Di­rec­tor Joe Spadafino said. “A lot of peo­ple put a lot of time into that play­ground.”

Spadafino said it’s the largest com­mu­nity-in­volved project he has been part of dur­ing his 23 years work­ing for Newark.

“When you meet Pre­ston and you meet Deb, it’s hard not to be mo­ti­vated to get the job done,” he said.

While the play­ground is com­plete, DeCaire is still rais­ing money to build the bath­rooms, which he hopes to have done by the spring.

DeCaire called Pre­ston’s Play­ground “one of the coolest play­grounds the state has ever seen” but noted its im­pact goes much farther than that.

“This is so much more than a play­ground,” he said. “It is a place where chil­dren and adults can come to­gether and learn that no mat­ter what your abil­i­ties are, you’re ac­cepted. It is a place to laugh, smile and en­joy the sim­ple plea­sures in life. It is a place that will change lives.”

Mayor Polly Sierer said the play­ground will be a des­ti­na­tion for fam­i­lies for years to come.

“This is a very, very, very, very spe­cial day,” Sierer said. “This is the epit­ome of a com­mu­nity com­ing to­gether.”

Mon­day’s grand open­ing drew a large crowd, in­clud­ing many of the vol­un­teers who worked on the play­ground as well as lo­cal chil­dren ea­ger to ex­pe­ri­ence the play­ground first­hand.

The man of the hour, Pre­ston, soaked up all the at­ten­tion. But af­ter all the speeches were made, all the pho­tos were taken, and all the hugs and high-fives were doled out, it was time to play.

As the morn­ing’s clouds gave way to sun, laugh­ter and shrieks of de­light filled the play­ground as dozens of kids ex­plored it for the first time. Kids ran up and down the ramps, climbed the mon­key bars and swung on the swings.

DeCaire’s 9-year-old daugh­ter, Josephine, found Pre­ston and put her arm around him. He leaned his head on her shoul­der. Josephine grabbed hold of Pre­ston’s wheelchair and pushed him up a ramp and through the maze of plat­forms and other play equip­ment.

Wide smiles on both their faces, they laughed to­gether and they played to­gether – two peo­ple of dif­fer­ent ages and dif­fer­ent abil­i­ties, united by friend­ship.

Just like Deb dreamed.

NEWARK POST PHO­TOS BY JOSH SHAN­NON

Josephine DeCaire, 9, pushes Pre­ston Bue­naga up a ramp on the new play­ground named for Pre­ston.

Deb Bue­naga speaks at the open­ing of Pre­ston’s Play­ground on Mon­day as her son, Pre­ston, looks on.

NEWARK POST PHO­TOS BY JOSH SHAN­NON

Ethan Alexan­der, 4, plays on Pre­ston’s Play­ground as mom Ni­cole looks on.

Kids have fun on Pre­ston’s Play­ground on Mon­day.

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