Tobey Kids Plan Playground for “Sweet” Hannah Cook

Tobey Elementary school 5th graders on their playground demonstrate the sand box “Sweet Hannah” was using. From left to right: Stella Reitenour, Natalie Balkema, Olivia Curtis, Chase Wilmont, and Drew Habel.

By Sue Moore

“It’s kids helping other kids,” explained Mike Barwegen, Tobey Elementary school principal, describing his student’ effort to fund a playground for a kindergarten student with cerebral palsy.

“They didn’t just want to help a student who was handicapped, they wanted to include her, understand what it was like to be Hannah Cook, and then make things right,” Barwegen explained. “Carsel Tharge, a fifth grade student came to me with a question. ‘Are you going to do anything about her not being able to play on the playground equipment?’ My answer was to challenge the fifth graders to do something about it. And they did.”

The school had installed new playground equipment a year ago that was suitable for all grades, but not for a student like Hannah who moves around on a walker, making it difficult even to get to the lunch room. “We made sure to have a stool so she could reach the sink to wash her hands, specials chairs, adjusted her locker hooks, but the one thing we missed was the playground,” said Angie Spanhak, inclusion/behavioral specialist for Vicksburg schools.

“Hannah was unable to access the playground due to the fact that our sidewalks stop shortly after you get outside and her walker is not able to maneuver on the uneven grass. That means that she cannot play with any of the equipment without being carried, which we do not want to do for safety purposes and also for the fact that it is not age appropriate,” Spanhak said. Hannah sat and watched the other children.

Hannah’s teacher found a little sand box at a garage sale and they adapted that for her outdoor activity. But even that caught the older children’s attention. “All she wants to do is play with the other kids,” said Chase Willmont, a fifth grader who along with Drew Habel, Natalie Balkema, Stella Reitenour, and Olivia Curtis, took things in their own hands to raise money for a more elaborate piece of playground equipment.

With Barwegen’s help, they located GameTime Company in Holland. It seemed to have the perfect piece of equipment and also offered to give the school a 50 percent discount. But the whole thing was estimated to cost $33,000. “This did not deter the kids from plunging into the fund raising. They raised $925.57 with a campaign called Pennies for a Playground. They sold bracelets for $2 each to other kids in the school. They went door to door in the Tobey school neighborhood, fundraisers at Olga’s and Bob Evans in Portage, and started a Go Fund Me online with their own homemade video.” The Tobey PTO has T-shirts for sale that tell the tale: “All-In”clusive. In total, they have raised $30,000 and the equipment has been ordered, even if a few dollars short. The 64 Tobey fifth graders truly believe they can finish it off between now and the date of installation on November 4 because GameTime has agreed to let them pay in installments. Hannah is due to return to school on November 11, once she has recovered from extensive surgery on her legs.

The next roadblock the fifth graders faced was that they would have to extend sidewalk for Hannah to reach the playground. Luckily a Tobey parent, Dennis Burr, also operates Concrete Works of Michigan. His company will be donating the sidewalk work and preparation landscaping for the project. This was a $4,000 savings for the fifth graders. Dennis also talked to some of his friends and Peterman Concrete has donated the cement for the sidewalk. It truly has become a community effort.

This effort has also drawn interest by major media, including Channel 3 News; Fox 17, ABC News, and Good Morning America. Barwegen has received calls from the Detroit Tigers who have sent baseball items to auction off and an offer of tickets for the fifth graders to attend a game next spring. P.J. Fleck, WMU’s football coach has called, the Kellogg Company has donated $4,000, and the Vicksburg Laundromat have all offered to help.

“Hannah has been surrounded by adults for the majority of her life going to and from therapy, and currently has a delay in the area of social skills. Not being able to play on the playground just makes that deficit larger as this is one of the most social times of student’s day,” Spanhak told the Vicksburg Community Schools Foundation which has also pledged to help put the campaign over the top.

“I cannot begin to explain what benefits this project has had to all of the students at Tobey elementary. The students and parents have had a real life lesson in compassion for others. The students have also gained empathy for a little girl they call Sweet Hannah,” Spanhak said.

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