Like any 7-year-old, Gwen Ciccozzi loves playing on the playground. But for Gwen, it's important that the playground be inclusive to all — a passion that's inspired her to roll up her sleeves and launch a lemonade stand to raise money to build one in her very own city.
"We didn't know if she would walk or talk or even be able to understand what other people were saying," Ciccozzi told WEWS.
Because of her differences, Gwen finds it difficult to fully enjoy herself at the playground in her city of Brunswick, and she and her mom often have to drive out of their way to an inclusive playground 20 minutes away.
"It's so hard because we want to be able to run and take Gwen to a playground," Ciccozzi told the Gazette. "She's at that stage where she can go to a typical playground, but she can't enjoy it as much because there's not as much that she can do with one functional hand."
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So when Brunswick resident Leann Alerio proposed the city's first inclusive park last year, Gwen was quick to jump on board to help raise the money needed to fund it.
Ciccozzi told the Gazette the idea for her daughter's lemonade stand — dubbed Gwennie Penny's Lemonade — started when they found a bag of lemons in the fridge that needed to be used, and blossomed from there.
"I was so overwhelmed with the generosity of our community," the proud mom told the outlet. "She raised so much money. We were in the house and counting it and I said, 'Gwen, this is a lot of money. Do you think you want to keep this all or should we donate some?' And she immediately said, 'The playground.'"
Alerio, a special education coordinator for Brunswick City Schools, first proposed the idea last year, and in March, Brunswick School System announced it would launch a joint fundraising effort to help pay for the new playground, which will upgrade an existing one at Neura Park to "include accommodation for special needs," the school system said in a statement.
HAGS, a Swedish recreational equipment company, explains on its website that inclusive playgrounds have multi-sensory elements, accessible surface materials, routes wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and secluded areas for children to have a quiet place to unwind.
While the city will oversee its construction and maintenance, costs are expected to be around $320,000. If all goes according to plan, the playground will reportedly be complete by March 2022.
"I have met some kids who have really impacted me and changed my life and when you get to work that closely with them you want to do anything you can to level that playing field," Alerio told WEWS. "They may walk differently, they may communicate differently, they may behave differently, but on the inside they're kids, they want to make friends and they want to play."
Gwen's lemonade stand has, as of last week, raised more than $1,000 to contribute to the cause, according to a Facebook page.
"The inclusive playground is so near and dear [to her]. She understands the need for that inclusiveness," Ciccozzi told the Gazette. "When she goes to a typical playground, oftentimes there are things that she struggles to participate in… To have [an inclusive playground] in our neighborhood and our community is our dream."