FITCHBURG — The ribbon cutting ceremony held on Thursday afternoon at the Sam Pawlak Community Playground means more to Meagan Rousseau than most people — it was the celebration of the official opening of a place where she can bring all three of her young sons to play together.
“Watching him actually enjoy it with his brothers is amazing,” the single mother said of her 13-year-old wheelchair bound oldest, Cameron Earley, excitedly enjoying the handicapped-accessible play structures with his two little brothers, Nathan Earley, 10, and Landon Earley, 7.
The playground’s namesake is Sam Pawlak, a beloved educator from the city who died on May 12, 2015, after a courageous battle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was known as a great family man, community leader and educator, and the playground was created in his honor.
Pawlak received a teaching degree from then-Fitchburg State College and was a teacher for many years at Natick High School and Nashoba Regional High School before he became the principal at Nashoba, holding that position for a long time and along the way changing and touching the lives of many youths. He served on the Fitchburg School Committee and after retiring from education he volunteered at Oakmont Regional High School working with special needs teenagers and at Children’s Hospital in Boston helping children and families in need of care.
Fitchburg Public Schools special education professionals Judy Jollimore and Beth LeBlanc, former students of his at Nashoba, hatched the plan for the playground while running together in 2013. Pawlak had already been diagnosed with ALS at that point in time and the two women were “going to a lot of fundraisers for Sam.”
“We wanted to do something to honor him,” Jollimore said at the ribbon cutting, calling Pawlak “a great guy.”
Well over 100 people gathered for the ceremony at the playground situated next to the existing Parkhill Park Playground off Pratt Road, a project that has been years in the making. The legion of individuals, groups and organizations involved in bringing it to fruition were visibly happy to be celebrating the official opening of the all-inclusive playground, including members of the Sam Pawlak Community Group.
“It’s great to have gotten here,” said Recreation Director Nate LaRose.
Free ice cream from the Pops Sweet-Hearts ice cream truck was available, much to the delight of the younger set, and local and state officials, City Hall staff, park supporters, members of the community group and the Fitchburg East Rotary Club, who along with others collected donations for the project, and several of Pawlak’s family members milled around with dozens of others who came to celebrate the occasion.
“The turnout is just remarkable,” said park board member Donna Pawlak, Sam Pawlak’s daughter-in-law. Her voice broke before composing herself and saying, “thank you from our family, we are all so incredibly thankful.”
“This couldn’t be named after a better person,” said Mayor Stephen DiNatale, who knew Pawlak for years as an active member of the community, an educator and a sports referee. DiNatale acknowledged the collaborative work between city departments and the community group in “making this a reality” and the instrumental roles state Sen. John Cronin and Rep. Michael Kushmerek have had in helping it come to fruition.
DiNatale spoke about the various funding sources that helped build the playground — $40,000 in donations and funds raised by the community group, a $400,000 PARC grant, a state earmark in the amount of $43,000 made possible by former state Sen. Dean Tran, and $125,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding. He gave props to the two women who came up with and spearheaded the effort, saying “Beth and Judy really did it all.”
Director of Planning and Community Development Tom Skwierwaski recalled being approached by the two women several years ago for city funding for the project. When he asked them to come up with a more solid plan before they could talk funding, he remembers the mayor “very firmly reminded me that we need to make this a reality.”
“I want to thank the mayor for his advocacy,” Skwierwaski said.
He said that as a father of young children, he knows how important it is for parents and caregivers to have “a place for kids to get their energy out,” a place inclusive for all children and abilities.
“This is a huge amenity,” he said. “We are proud to be a part of making this happen and fulfilling the legacy of this park.”
Skwierwaski gave a shout out to the project manager, contractor, Planning Board, those who helped secure CDBG funding for the project, and all involved with the project and their “meticulous attention to detail.”
“I look forward to seeing what it looks like a year from now,” he said.
Jollimore said they started doing fundraisers for the playground project years ago, including several at the Knights of Columbus such as meat raffles, and that the Pawlak family was “instrumental in raising funds.” They were able to secure a portion of the funding needed through donations and such, but it just wasn’t enough.
“We realized if we keep doing it this way, it’s going to take forever,” Jollimore said.
Once funding from the city, grants and other sources started coming in, they were able to move forward with the project and after years of planning and fundraising a groundbreaking ceremony was held last August.
The fenced-in playground has several pieces of wheelchair-accessible and easy-transfer equipment and features a variety of sensory experiences geared towards children with intellectual impairment, autism, and visual limitations.
The hope is that children from all the surrounding communities such as Ashburnham Ashby, Leominster, Lunenburg, Townsend, and beyond will come and enjoy the playground and beautiful park.
Rousseau is a lifelong city resident with a lot of familial ties to it. Her mother was one of nine siblings that grew up in Fitchburg, her father is retired Deputy Fire Chief David Rousseau, and her grandfather was a mailman in the city. She said they are grateful for the playground that their family will utilize frequently, and that she hopes they add more parking spots in the future.
“Our biggest challenge is parking,” she said.
Several of Sam Pawlak’s family members and close friends attended the ribbon cutting including his grandchildren and four children, three of which are special education teachers.
“It’s something instinctual in them,” Donna Pawlak said.
She said they often run into Sam Pawlak’s formers students who “all talk about such fond memories of him.”
“Sam touched so many lives,” she said. “This is so great to do in his memory.”