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The possible dream
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 12/31/2007

Frontphoto At a certain playground in Warwick, Rhode Island there are enough ways to play away the afternoon to rival any Six Flags or Disney World amusement park. An old-fashioned train station with tables and chairs serves as a popular rest place for a child dizzied from swings or tuckered out from tag. That is, if they’re not captivated by the pond filled with hundreds of rainbow-bright Koi fish that putter around the animal statues and fountains. This playground is truly any child’s dream, but not just because of the endless hours of fun it provides.

The John D. Florio Memorial Park is a recreational area for kids of all abilities. Swings, seesaws, playhouses, and a mini golf course are just as accessible to physically disabled children as to anyone else. The playground is the brainchild of Rhode Island’s The Impossible Dream, Inc., a charity that grants dreams for chronically ill and disabled children. Open from the spring to the end of fall, the park easily has 300 to 400 visitors on any given day.

One regular is Impossible Dream executive director Diane Penza. She loves and visits the park so much she’s become somewhat of a town celebrity.

“I will be at mall shopping and hear, “There’s the playground lady!” Penza says, laughing. “It’s not the worst thing I could be called, especially when I walk out to the park on a beautiful day and every wheelchair swing is taken and every other swing is taken.”

John D. Florio Memorial Park

But one Saturday morning late last summer her visit was anything but enjoyable when she discovered the playground wrecked with vandalism.

“It was like walking into your own home and seeing dishes that you didn’t leave out tossed all over the counter,” Penza says as she recounts the damage. “In our train station the windows were broken and everything was strewn around. I immediately called the police and went to check the rest of the playground piece by piece.”

As she surveyed the damage, she noticed the stillness of the Koi pond and realized she’d come upon the worst of it all.

“I went over to our beloved fish pond: it was a sea of floating fish,” Penza says with dismay. “I can’t even put it in words. The children love watching the fish. I love watching them. If it’s a real stressful day, I spend five minutes watching them. It’s so peaceful.”

While police and Penza hoped a filter malfunction or some other natural disaster had killed the fish, water tests found that a foreign substance in the water led to their death. As Penza began putting the playground back together, word got out about the devastation, and those connected to the park decided to help out.

“Through the years when we close our playground for the winter, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections has sent a crew to put all the equipment away, and within three or four days it’s done,” Penza says. “Then in the spring when it’s time to open again they come and set everything up. It is such a blessing, because we could never find enough money for the labor. There would be no other way.”

This year, a group of RIDOC inmates went beyond their regular maintenance duties to help restore the park. Members of a construction technology class made Adirondack chairs and matching tables and donated them to the Impossible Dream.

“I knew nothing,” says Penza, still thrilled at the news. “They called and said we want you to come over, a vocational class has been making tables and chairs for the playground. They didn’t tell me they were going to be in the shape of a fish!”

Fish table

“Teresa Berube, the work release counselor at Minimum Security knew of the vandalism to the park and the pond,” RIDOC spokeswoman Tracey Poole adds. “Teresa brought the story to the class, and one of the inmates came up with the fish design for the tables. The class members were very upset to learn about the vandalism and loved the idea of being able to give something back to the kids. It’s been a real win-win for everyone involved.”

The child-sized Adirondack chairs and fish-shaped table tops, which come in a blaze of pastel colors, were recently presented to Impossible Dream.

Adirondack chairs being prepared for the park. See more photos.

“I can just tell they will be a huge hit,” Penza says. “The children love things that are their size. In the spring these sets will be peppered all over. They’re just so cute.”

The playground is closed for the winter and quiet, except for the 100 new fish that have been added to the pond, with more planned for the spring. Now, thanks to her community and the RIDOC, Penza and her Impossible Dream can get back to business of granting wishes and preparing for the kids of all ages and abilities who will enjoy the newly refurbished park this upcoming playground season.

Related Resources:

See photos of the playground and fish tables

Watch a local news story about The Impossible Dream


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