Apr 25, 2017 04:21PM ● By Steven Hoffman
There is a sizable plot of land, located off Paper Mill Road in Newark, that patiently waits to become an inclusive, 8,400-square-foot playground, where able-bodied children will be able to play side by side with children with disabilities, and where attention will be given not to differences, but to the quiet truth that everyone who will go there is all one.
Preston’s Playground, launched last year through a collaboration between Fusion Fitness, Preston’s March for Energy, the City of Newark and hundreds of contributors, is about to fill up that square footage with a beautifully designed labyrinth of slides, swings and other equipment that every child will be able to play on. To date, nearly $500,000 has been raised toward the $600,000 price tag, and the playground – which was designed by Tennessee-based PlayCore — is expected to break ground this year.
That in itself is enough of a story, and it would not be a violation of any rules of essential journalism to place a definitive period at the end of the second paragraph and move on, and yet, its narrative is not found in design but in passions. It is found in unraveling the complicated means by which people come together with no other agenda than to even up the playing field of humanity. This is the story of how a guy with a gym came to know a mother and her son, and how a playground came to be.
This is a story about the power of inclusion.
Preston Buenaga is a junior at Concord High School in Wilmington. He approaches his life with a ready smile and a sharp sense of humor. He lives with a mitochondrial disorder, which effects his physical, developmental, and cognitive abilities and his muscle tone. He is confined to a wheelchair. Preston is also a long-distance competitor; through the use of an adaptive running chair he sits in, he has been pushed along by his mother, Deb, at two marathons and several 5K and 10Ks. Preston and Deb have run in snow, in sleet, in hailstorms and in sandstorms, in Delaware, Virginia, Connecticut and other states.
When Preston Buenaga is seated in that bike with his mother behind him, he feels immeasurably in the world, front and center with the wind in his face and swept up in competition. It is a temporary diversion, however; throughout his life, he has sat in his wheelchair at playgrounds with his mother near him, confined to the outer reaches, looking in. Deb would not have it; she arranged games with the other kids that would include her son. Get Preston in this game, she would say. Let Preston play with you. They did.
“The other parents sit and watch their kids, and usually, I’m the only parent up there playing with them,” Deb said. “A lot of parents used to tell their kids not to play with Preston, but the kids were so interested in him and what he was able to do.
“It’s not the kids who are afraid. Its the adults. Kids don’t care if you have five eyes or two eyes. They just want to be able to play, on the same levels.”
When Nic DeCaire began Fusion Fitness in Newark, he did so with the understanding that his business would represent more than just a place to work out. He envisioned a concept that would immerse Fusion into the fabric of the Newark community, with out-of-the-box plans for raising money for organizations and causes. He formed the Main Street Mile, which has to date raised $150,000 for the Newark police Department’s K-9 unit.
Several years later, DeCaire received an email from a father asking if his son, Andrew, could participate in the Main Street Mile. Andrew, the father wrote, lived with a severe form of spina bifida. As a result, the father wrote, Andrew participated in races through the use of a hand-cranked bicycle, but several race directors barred him from competing. He was a liability, they told him.
Of course , DeCaire said. This is an inclusive race. Anyone could participate.
“Andrew was all smiles, ear to ear, and I watched people react to him being a part of the race,” DeCaire said. “I watched him cross the finish line, and it was a great moment. I turned to someone next to me and asked, ‘Where did this bike from and how can we buy one for someone else?’”
The bike was purchased for Andrew through a foundation called Preston’s March for Energy, run by Deb Buenaga. It raises money to get specialized bikes into the hands of families who have children with physical limitations. Each bike costs between $1,800 and $2,400.
It was time for DeCaire and his staff and members to help raise money to buy more bikes. Fusion Fitness organized Fusion for a Cause, a fitness challenge, and dedicated all proceeds from the event to Preston’s March for Energy. After four weeks, Fusion for a Cause raised $7,200, and purchased four more bikes. Over the course of that year, Fusion for a Cause continued to raise funding that purchased 15 more bikes.
In July 2015, Fusion kicked off the Fusion Inclusion Means Everyone 5K, the proceeds of which went to raise money to help pay for educating children with disabilities how to better participate in physical education classes in schools. More than 250 competitors participated. The excitement from the race led to a second Inclusion Race in October 2015.
“I was having coffee with Deb, just thinking about where we should dedicate the proceeds of the October race to, when I turned to her and said, ‘Maybe we should build an adaptive playground,’” DeCaire said. “I was joking, but I was also serious at the same time. Delaware does not have a good adaptive playground, that provide easy accessibility for someone with a handicap. We wanted to build something that Delaware had not seen yet.”
DeCaire pitched the concept to the City of Newark, and immediately, it signed on. Joe Spadafino, the head of Park & Recreation, helped DeCaire find a location, secure the property, find grants and establish permits for building. Newark Mayor Polly Sierer single-handedly raised more than $10,00 for the playground. The Newark Charter School raised $7,000, and a local University of Delaware sorority raised another $6,000.
The playground will be 6,000 square feet, but will include 8,400 square feet of rubberized surface material and three accessible entrances for kids with wheelchairs, braces or other mobility issues. There will be safe, adaptive equipment for all abilities. A bright sun shade will cover the park to protect children from the sun and make for a cooler environment in the summer.
For DeCaire, giving back is in his family’s DNA. His father, Xavier, has been involved with the Delaware-based Operation Smile Foundation, which raises funds to pay for surgeries for children in Bolivia and Ecuador. This led to the DeCaires forming of a second fundraising effort – called Kids With Confidence – which raises funding to help pay for surgeries for local children whose families can’t afford them.
That DNA has been passed to a new generation of DeCaires. His 7-year-old daughter, Josephine, wants to sell cookies to raise money for the playground. Recently, she reached out her hand to her father. In it was 11 cents. She wanted her father to donate the money to Preston’s Playground.
“There are two type of people who can help out – those who can do financially and then people who can help bring time and resources and people together,” DeCaire said. “I do have time and I do have resources. Some people have the gift of being able to pull people together. For some reason, I have that gift, so why not use it?”
DeCaire calls the formation of what will become Preston’s Playground “the Ripple Effect.”
“You toss the stone and you watch the ripple keep going. The ripple effect for the playground began with the Main Street Mile, where we met Andrew. Andrew led to Deb. Deb led to the bikes. The bikes led to a race. The race led to the playground.”
There’s another new ripple in the water. Fusion Inclusion, a nonprofit organization begun by DeCaire and Fusion Fitness trainer Steve Sinko, brings adaptive running chairs to races throughout the Delaware community. DeCaire has spoken with Cole Galloway of the University of Delaware’s Star Campus’ Go-Baby-Go Program, which helps provide individuals with disabilities the technology that allows them to better function. Galloway has expressed interest in using the playground for testing, fitness and rehabilitation.
“Nic DeCaire and Deb Buenaga did not build this playground,” DeCaire said. “This will be a community-built playground. I want to be able to able to walk to that playground with my daughters, Josephine and Grace, and play there and have no one know that I was involved in this. When we bring everyone together, they will take ownership of that playground. I may be serving as the captain of the ship, but it’s the crew who is making that ship work.”
When DeCaire is asked to imagine a finished Preston’s Playground, he sees an 8,400-square-foot spot in Newark that is one of pure inclusion, where no one looks at those in a wheelchair as any different than they are. He sees the playground as a place where children learn acceptance.
“In my mind, that’s what Preston’s Playground will mean,” he said.
For more information about Preston’s Playground, visit www.prestonsplayground.org. To learn more about Preston’s March for Energy, visit www.prestonsmarch.org.