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In North Stonington, community unites to build school playgrounds

North Stonington — The Mama Lions, as some members of the parent-teacher organization's playground committee have taken to calling themselves, should be ruling the world.

That's what North Stonington Elementary School Principal Ronnie Wilkison, shovel and rake in hand, said Saturday morning as she helped a group of resourceful moms, along with many construction-savvy dads, build two new playground areas at the newly renovated school on Route 2.

The playground committee raised $120,000 over the past five months and organized a four-day playground build that began on Thursday. The existing playgrounds were outdated and unsafe, but funds to replace them were not included in a $38.5 million school modernization project. 

Committee members said they understand why the new playgrounds weren't funded, and that the town has been involved and supportive of their effort.

One day soon, North Stonington kids in prekindergarten through sixth grade will no longer be limited to bouncing a tennis ball against a brick wall or shooting baskets during their 25-minute recess periods. They'll be swinging, swirling, sliding and inventing games of their own on state-of-the-art equipment paid for by area donors, including some of the students themselves, who sent in their allowance.

The new play areas will be accessible to kids of all abilities, with ramp access for wheelchairs and other features designed with special needs in mind.

A group of men stood Saturday morning among piles of dirt and footings to begin assembling two GameTime playscapes, colored bright orange and blue and acquired at a significant discount. The volunteers saved what they could from the old playgrounds, repainting existing swingset frames, but replacing the swings themselves.

Nearby, a group prepped a walkway that will be paved with donated cement blocks painted by town families during the quarantine. Margaret Leonard, who has two children at the school and a 2-year-old future student at home, said the inaugural 90 paving stones would be supplemented by many more in coming years, with the goal of building an entire patio.

It all came together within a few months.

"We haven't been in this school for a couple of years (during the renovation), and with (COVID-19) and kids inside for so long, we thought it was a good idea to invest in somewhere for them to play," Beth Kirmmse said. "It's so important for kids to have physical development to complement learning. They're ready to learn again when they come in from the playground."

Texting each other from morning until midnight for the past five months, they applied for grants, solicited donations and discounts from suppliers and involved the entire community in a series of clever fundraising events.

They organized a virtual concert featuring local performers, sold face masks and popsicles, collected scrap metal and held a min-golf event. One student raised $600 selling bracelets. During the quarantine, They had a drive-thru kiddie pool event in which families were asked to throw in their spare change from the safety of their cars.

They received donations and services from too many companies and private citizens, from within and outside of town, to list.

"You can see here today how our community has come together," Courtney Gumbiner said. "The main goal from the start was that our kids deserve this."

She said Mama Lions step up when needed.

The volunteers said key committee members included Paige Linda, Jennifer Stefanowicz, Leonard and Jamie Towle-Weicksel. The group strategized during hourslong Zoom meetings while their husbands watched the kids and brought many professional skills to the playground project, with a project manager, professor, photographer and teacher among their ranks.

"We have all different backgrounds," said Towle-Weicksel, a chemistry professor experienced with writing grant applications.

The school principal, Wilkison, said children returned to their newly renovated school on Aug. 30, attending two days a week and learning at home the other three days. The kids have been "absolutely amazing" about wearing face masks and staying 6 feet apart, she said.

Within weeks, the quality of their recess periods is expected to improve tremendously.

"They've seen the work out here," Wilkison said. "They're going to be so excited."

k.florin@theday.com 

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