PEABODY — Construction of the Randi Lemenager Memorial Playground at the Captain Samuel Brown School has not stopped despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's one of the city's few all-inclusive playgrounds. When it's finished, organizers say, it will allow kids with disabilities to navigate on their own, play with their peers and feel enriched.
The "Recess for Randi" playground, with its purple play structures, is being built in memory of Randi Lemenager, an aspiring special education teacher and Peabody native who died on Aug. 1, 2017, at age 22. Organizers say the South Peabody structure should be mostly finished within the next couple of weeks.
While a groundbreaking ceremony had to be canceled March 19 because of the pandemic, there are plans for a ribbon cutting later this year.
Its construction has also coincided with April being National Autism Awareness Month.
"It's wonderful that her legacy will live on," said Lemenager's mother, Denise. She and her husband, Danny, live not far from the school at 150 Lynn St. It's also where Denise works as a special education paraprofessional, and where her daughter taught and volunteered.
"She always wanted all the kids to be included," Denise Lemenager said.
"It will be fully accessible to all children," said School Committee Vice Chairwoman Beverley Griffin Dunne, who knows the Lemenager family well.
Dunne said the playground's tie-dye accents reflect Randi's love of tie-dye T-shirts. The all-inclusive playground also fits with Randi's goal of becoming a special education teacher, she said.
“This wonderful new playground is a tribute to Randi Lemenager’s giving spirit," said Mayor and School Committee Chairman Ted Bettencourt, "and her and the Brown School community’s passion to provide opportunities for children of all abilities."
Councilor-at-large Jon Turco, who used to represent Ward 1, credited Brown School Special Education teacher Erin Thorpe and Brown School parent Haley Guarino for guiding the project.
Turco said he loved the all-inclusive aspect of the playground. "There are those kids who can't go out to a regular playground," he said.
While the playground is meant for all kids in the city, the Brown School is unique in that it offers special education programs for students throughout Peabody. About one-third of the students have a disability and a large amount have autism, according to the grant application to the Community Preservation Committee, which approved $120,000 for the project.
Guarino, vice chairperson of the nonprofit Randi Lemenager Memorial Playground Committee, said the group raised $90,000 for the playground. The group is continuing to raise money with the aim of creating a scholarship in Randi's memory. (You can order a brick for the playground by going to www.facebook.com/recessforrandi.)
The playground's all-inclusive features include ramps, a synthetic grass flooring, and a Picture Exchange Communication System, which consists of a board with pictures on it that allows children with autism or those who are nonverbal to point to a picture to communicate.
"I work with children who are nonverbal, and that is very important," said Thorpe, a friend and mentor of Randi's and chairperson of the playground committee. "Communication is important to play and life in general."
It was Thorpe's idea to build the playground in memory of Lemenager, who she said touched a lot of lives throughout the state.
Lemenager graduated as valedictorian from Westfield State University in 2017 with a degree in special education, and landed a job that summer as a special education teacher at the Brown School's summer school. She was subsequently hired to be a teacher for the Brown School's co-taught inclusion program for students with autism.
"It was a way for me to also heal to help me with the process," Thorpe said of the playground.