What does a mother do when she realizes that in a few years time her disabled daughter might be forced to sit on the sidelines while her able-bodied friends swing from the monkey bars and slither down the slide on the school playground?
She builds her own.
At least that’s what Caroline Filchak is doing for her 2-year-old daughter, Hope, and other kids like her.
Six months after she was born, Hope was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Microphthalmia with Linear Skin Defects Syndrome. Fewer than 1,000 people in the U.S. have MLS Syndrome, and it is almost always fatal in boys.
“Her syndrome has caused her to be deaf, blind and she has two heart defects and a brain defect,” Filchak said.
On Monday, March 13, she handed a check for $390,000 to Matt Cox, the director of facilities and construction for Hall County Schools. It was the near-culmination of a vigorous fundraising campaign that began with the founding of her organization Hope for Hall earlier this year, which strives to “normalize disability through play, education, and technology.”
“I had my first donor meeting Jan. 25 of this year,” Filchak said. “People are really coming out in a big way and supporting this.”
The Hall school board announced Filchak’s hefty check at their public meeting and decided to chip in, unanimously approving a $150,000 contribution for an “inclusive” playground at Wauka Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy.
“We have not invested in these initiatives in the past. However, what we have been consistent with is, when our community, when our parents raise money for an initiative … we have come alongside them and said we want to support this also,” Superintendent Will Schofield said.
“Whenever we heard that, we were so excited,” Filchak said. “We had no idea that that was even on the table.”
Filchak got the idea for an inclusive playground after receiving a particularly gloomy prognosis regarding her daughter’s condition. Afterward, she did what she’s done for the past 20 years when she needed to relieve some stress. She hit the track at Wauka Mountain.
“As I was running, I was thinking about what the doctor said, telling me, ‘Your child may not walk and she may not communicate,’ and I was looking at the playground and I was thinking, ‘Well, if my child can't walk, how is she going to play on this playground with her typically developing brother, who is her best friend?”
She began talking to other parents and discovered that she wasn’t alone.
“I learned that we had children who were sitting on the sidelines,” she said. “They had disabilities, they were being taken out to recess and there was nothing for them to do except sit in their wheelchair and watch their friends play.”
Fast forward a couple months and Filchak has nearly reached the playground’s $776,000 price tag.
Wauka Mountain has two playgrounds. The one to the left of the school’s entrance will be replaced, and while it currently meets the minimum requirements of accessibility set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Filchak said, it doesn’t exactly cater to children like Hope.
“The question then becomes, what are these children with disabilities going to be able to do once they get on the playground?” she said.
Hall County Schools has more than 3,500 students with disabilities — more than 1-in-10 students — though most are related to learning difficulties, according to district spokesman Stan Lewis.
Filchak and her organization have partnered with Playground Creations and have been closely involved in the playground’s design, which, though decidedly modern, will feature something of a throwback to the playgrounds of yore.
“Kids with cochlear implants and hearing aids, they're taught not to go down a plastic slide because the static of the plastic can impact their hearing device,” she said. “So we have a metal roller slide.”
The coolest part of the playground, she said, is an educational maze with more than a dozen customizable panels, including the alphabets for Braille and American Sign Language, as well as pictures and biographies of Louis Braille, Helen Keller and Matt Stutzman, the “armless archer” who won a silver medal for archery — using his feet — in the 2012 Paralympics.
“We thought that would be really inspiring to show the kids,” she said.
Filchak said the building materials will arrive soon, and the playground should be ready for students by late September or early October. And not just students, she said. It will be open to the public during afterschool hours and on weekends.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law last year mandating recess for all Georgia elementary schools, but Filchak said it fails to address the inequities faced by disabled students who still don’t have a place to play.
“It breaks my heart that we have kids in our school system now that play is not an option, and it's just because of the way they were born or because of an unfortunate accident,” she said, her voice breaking. “This is a way to make that right for them and to give them what they deserve. All kids are worthy. All kids belong. And all kids deserve a place to play.”
Hope for Hall and Love Your Story will host a community “inclusion night” from 6-7 p.m. March 28 at Gainesville First United Methodist Church to raise disability awareness and provide educational resources. You can learn more by visiting hopeforhall.com.
“We're hoping it'll be a really cool night to kind of play off this momentum of inclusion in our community,” Filchak said. “Inclusive playgrounds: this is the future for Hall County.”