Sam Pawlak Community Playground Officially Opens in Fitchburg with Ribbon Cutting

FITCHBURG — Thursday afternoon’s groundbreaking ceremony at the Sam Pawlak Community Playground means more to Meagan Rousseau than most people — it was a celebration of the grand opening of a place where she can bring her three young sons to play together.

Donna Pawlak and project organizers Judy Jollimore and Beth LeBlanc cut the ribbon Thursday to officially open the Sam Pawlak Community Playground, surrounded by city officials and project supporters. (DANIELLE RAY/SENTINEL & COMPANY)

“Watching him enjoy it with his brothers is amazing,” the single mom said of her wheelchair-bound 13-year-old, Cameron Earley, enthusiastically enjoying handicap-accessible play structures with her two little brothers, Nathan Earley. , 10, and Landon Earley, 7.

The playground’s namesake is Sam Pawlak, a beloved city educator who passed away 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 the then Fitchburg State College and taught for many years at Natick High School and Nashoba Regional High School before becoming principal of Nashoba, serving in that position for a long time. and along the way, changing and touching the lives of many young people. He served on the Fitchburg School Committee and after retiring from education, he volunteered at Oakmont Regional High School working with special needs teens and at the hospital Children’s Hospital of Boston to help children and families in need of care.

Donna Pawlak addressed the crowd gathered Thursday for the grand opening of the Sam Pawlak Community Playground built in honor of her late father-in-law while (left to right) Mayor Stephen DiNatale, Rep. Michael Kushmerek and Senator John Cronin watched.  (DANIELLE RAY/SENTINEL & COMPANY)
Donna Pawlak addressed the crowd gathered Thursday for the grand opening of the Sam Pawlak Community Playground built in honor of her late father-in-law while (left to right) Mayor Stephen DiNatale, Rep. Michael Kushmerek and Senator John Cronin watched. (DANIELLE RAY/SENTINEL & COMPANY)

Fitchburg Public Schools special education professionals Judy Jollimore and Beth LeBlanc, his former students at Nashoba, came up with the playground plan while running together in 2013. Pawlak had already been diagnosed with ALS by then. and the two women “went to many fundraisers for Sam.

“We wanted to do something to honor him,” Jollimore said during the ribbon cutting, calling Pawlak an “awesome guy.”

More than 100 people gathered for the ceremony at the playground next to the existing Parkhill Park playground on Pratt Road, a project that took years to prepare. The legion of individuals, groups and organizations involved in making it happen were visibly happy to celebrate the official opening of the all-inclusive playground, including members of the Sam Pawlak Community Group.

“It’s great to be here,” Recreation Director Nate LaRose said.

Free ice cream from the Pops Sweet-Hearts Ice Cream Truck was available, much to the delight of the younger ones, and local and state officials, city hall staff, park supporters, community group members and the Fitchburg East Rotary Club, who and others collected donations for the project, and several members of Pawlak’s family came along with dozens of others to celebrate the occasion.

Fitchburg's Earley brothers - (left to right) Nathan, Landon and Cameron - enjoy playing on one of the handicap-accessible play structures at the Sam Pawlak Community Playground after the May 12 ribbon unveiling.  (DANIELLE RAY/SENTINEL & COMPANY)
Fitchburg’s Earley brothers – (left to right) Nathan, Landon and Cameron – enjoy playing on one of the handicap-accessible play structures at the Sam Pawlak Community Playground after the May 12 ribbon unveiling. (DANIELLE RAY/SENTINEL & COMPANY)

“The turnout is just outstanding,” said Donna Pawlak, park board member and daughter-in-law of Sam Pawlak. His voice cracked before calming down and saying, “Thank you from our family, we’re all incredibly grateful.”

“It couldn’t have been named after a better person,” said Mayor Stephen DiNatale, who had known Pawlak for years as an active community member, educator and sports referee. DiNatale acknowledged the collaborative work between city departments and the community group to “make this a reality” and the instrumental roles Sen. John Cronin and Rep. Michael Kushmerek have played in helping bring it to fruition. .

DiNatale talked about the various sources of funding that helped build the playground — $40,000 in donations and funds raised by the community group, a $400,000 PARC grant, a state allotment in the amount of $43,000 made possible by former Senator Dean Tran, and $125,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). He gave props to the two women who invented and led the effort, saying “Beth and Judy really did it all.”

Planning and Community Development Director Tom Skwierwaski recalled being approached by the two women several years ago about getting city funding for the project. When he asked them to come up with a more solid plan before they could talk about funding, he recalls the mayor “reminding me very strongly that we have to make this a reality”.

“I want to thank the mayor for his advocacy,” Skwierwaski said.

Community members of all ages enjoy playing at the Sam Pawlak Community Playground in Fitchburg, which was officially opened with a ribbon cutting on May 12.  (DANIELLE RAY/SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE)
Community members of all ages enjoy playing at the Sam Pawlak Community Playground in Fitchburg, which was officially opened with a ribbon cutting on May 12. (DANIELLE RAY/SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE)

He said that as a father of young children, he knows how important it is for parents and caregivers to have “a place where children can draw their energy”, a place that is inclusive for all children and all abilities.

“It’s a huge piece of equipment,” he said. “We are proud to help achieve this goal and fulfill the legacy of this park.”

Skwierwaski paid tribute to the project manager, the contractor, the planning board, those who helped secure CDBG funding for the project and everyone involved in the project and their “meticulous attention to detail. “.

“I can’t wait to see what it will look like in a year,” he said.

Jollimore said they started fundraising for the playground project years ago, including several at the Knights of Columbus, such as meat raffles, and that the Pawlak family had “helped fundraising”. They were able to secure some of the necessary funding through donations and the like, but it just wasn’t enough.

“We realized that if we keep doing it this way, it’s going to take forever,” Jollimore said.

Community members of all ages enjoy playing at the Sam Pawlak Community Playground in Fitchburg, which was officially opened with a ribbon cutting on May 12.  (DANIELLE RAY/SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE)
Community members of all ages enjoy playing at the Sam Pawlak Community Playground in Fitchburg, which was officially opened with a ribbon cutting on May 12. (DANIELLE RAY/SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE)

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 took place. took place last August.

The fenced-in play area has several wheelchair-accessible, easy-to-transfer equipment and offers a variety of sensory experiences for children with developmental disabilities, autism, and visual limitations.

The hope is that children from all surrounding communities such as Ashburnham Ashby, Leominster, Lunenburg, Townsend and beyond will come to enjoy the playground and the beautiful park.

Rousseau has been a lifelong resident of the city with many family ties to it. His mother was one of nine siblings who grew up in Fitchburg, his father is retired Deputy Fire Chief David Rousseau, and his grandfather was a mail carrier in the town. She said they are grateful for the playground that their family will use frequently and that she hopes they add more parking spaces in the future.

“Our biggest challenge is parking,” she said.

Several family members and close friends of Sam Pawlak attended the ribbon cutting, including his grandchildren and four children, three of whom are special education teachers.

“It’s something instinctive about them,” Donna Pawlak said.

She said they often meet Sam Pawlak’s former students who “all talk about such fond memories of him”.

“Sam touched so many lives,” she said. “So good to do in his memory.”

Harold B. McConnell