Levi Sanders

Levi Sanders, of Fredericktown, smiles after cutting the ribbon at Harmony Playground's grand opening ceremony on Thursday afternoon.

MOUNT VERNON – Katie Fiorilli wanted to cry.

She stood at a podium in front of hundreds of spectators at Memorial Park on Thursday, ready to tell the story of how Harmony Playground came to be. The rain had held off and the occasion was momentous – the park is the first of its kind in Knox County and the surrounding region.

But when she glanced to her right, Fiorilli saw her ‘why.’ Her name is Caroline. She’ll be four years old in June. She watched quietly as her Aunt Katie spoke, and when she glanced her way, it took all of Aunt Katie’s courage to continue on.

Harmony Playground was built for Caroline, who has Down syndrome, but it was also built for everyone else. That’s the beauty of it.

The playground, which sits on 10,000 square feet behind the skate park, was built to be ‘all-inclusive.’ It contains equipment that is accessible for people of all ages and abilities. At Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, children climbed the rock wall and swung on the swings. They sat in the cozy cocoons and spun on the merry-go-round, which features secure seating and handlebars.

It took a community effort to make it happen. The temporary sign sitting in front of the park listed 88 major community sponsors, which raised more than $600,000 combined to build the playground last fall. The project was spearheaded by a planning committee, which included Fiorilli, and endorsed by the Knox County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

“It takes a community to build a playground,” said Steve Oster, Board of Developmental Disabilities superintendent, “and I’m proud to be a part of this community.”

Mayor Richard Mavis commended the project, calling it “more than just a playground.” It will bring the community closer, Mavis said, and it will also draw families to Knox County.

For Fiorilli and many in attendance on Thursday, the playground is personal.

“Seeing (Caroline) be here as part of this playground, interacting with children of all abilities – seeing parents of kids with disabilities and without interacting, getting to know each other, and truly coming together as a community – is an indescribable feeling,” Fiorilli said.

“This is definitely going to be one of my greatest achievements in my lifetime.”

Grassroots effort

The story behind Harmony Playground began back in 2015, just one year after Fiorilli and her husband, Nick, moved to Mount Vernon.

Katie Fiorilli’s oldest sister, Jenny, called her one day to tell her she was having her fourth child. But something seemed off.

“I remember that conversation very clearly, and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’” Fiorilli said. “And she said, ‘Well, Caroline has Down syndrome.’”

Katie Fiorilli

Katie Fiorilli holds her niece, Caroline, during the Harmony Playground ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday afternoon.

Fiorilli didn’t know how to react, so she acted remorseful. She showed sympathy for her sister, as if Down syndrome were something to grieve about. The mood quickly changed, however, once Caroline came into the world.

“She has brought nothing but joy to our lives,” Fiorilli told the crowd Thursday. “She is truly a blessing and it’s really helped us all understand what it means to slow down and enjoy the little moments with her, and in life in general.”

Fiorilli realized that her initial remorse probably stemmed from a lack of awareness. Before Caroline came along, she knew little about Down syndrome or what it meant to be disabled. So that became her mission – to increase awareness.

The Fiorillis, who own Crossfit 1808 in Mount Vernon, decided to start an annual crossfit competition that would benefit causes dedicated to raising awareness for disabilities. It would be called “Caroline’s Classic.”

After brainstorming with the Knox County Board of Developmental Disabilities, they agreed it would be best to put donations toward a new piece of playground equipment, which children of all abilities could use.

The first year, they raised $6,500. It was enough to purchase one piece of equipment, and Fiorilli admits she was fine with that. She was thrilled.

“Fast forward to the following fall in 2017, and all of the sudden I am on a committee to develop an entire inclusive playground,” said Fiorilli, laughing.

Katie Fiorilli 2

Katie Fiorilli co-owns Crossfit 1808 in Mount Vernon, alongside her husband and brother-in-law.

The planning committee – which also included Tami Ruhl from the Health Department, Jamie and Laura Sanders, and Oster – began researching inclusive equipment and designing the playground. As its vision grew, so did the public support.

The Board of DD kicked off its official fundraising campaign last March, and Oster projected it’d be attainable in two or three years. After three months, the six-figure goal had been met.

“At some point, we stopped having to ask (for donations),” Oster said.

“I never would have dreamed that in three months, the funds were raised to build what you see behind us today.”

Steve Oster

Steve Oster, superintendent of the Knox County Board of Developmental Disabilities, speaks during Harmony Playground's ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Along with the Board of Developmental Disabilities, key donors for the project included the Ariel Foundation, Diversified Products & Services, and the Richard I. and Arline J. Landers Foundation.

Construction took place last fall and lasted approximately three months. The playground was turned over to the City of Mount Vernon upon completion, and it opened unofficially in the winter. Oster said the playground has been well-attended in the early spring months.

Long before the groundbreaking and the ribbon-cutting, however, the park was given a name. It was selected through a Facebook vote, and it holds near-perfect symbolism.

“The definition of the word ‘harmony...’” said Oster, clearing his throat:

“Where old and new blend in harmony, the simplicity of the individual parts focus attention on the harmony of the whole structure.”

A healthy, inclusive alternative

Before the creation of Harmony Playground, Fredericktown’s Levi Sanders had a hard time with parks.

He has Down syndrome, and he also had open-heart surgery when he was three months old, which has limited his muscle growth growing up. He had a hard time riding merry-go-rounds, as he had little strength to stabilize on the herky-jerky wheel.

“If the other kids were spinning it really fast, he would just fall off,” said his father, Jamie.

Levi doesn’t have to worry about falling off at Harmony Playground. On Thursday, he rode an adaptable version of the merry-go-round, which allows children to tuck into the base and stay stable as the wheel turns.

“He doesn’t need a lot of muscle tone in order to play on it,” Jamie explained. “He can play and spin with other kids.”

Levi smiled as he explored the park’s 23 pieces of adaptable equipment on Thursday. Ruhl, the Knox County Health Department’s Program Coordinator, said the planning committee put time into researching each item.

One of the most popular pieces sits on the west edge of the playground. It’s called an ‘aero-glider,’ as it rocks back and forth, suspended in the air. Two wheelchairs can fit side-by-side on the glider, and there’s additional room on the sides for children and parents.

“This item encourages cooperation and teamwork,” Ruhl explained.

There are also places for children to rest and get away from the action. Dinosaur eggs, installed at various points around the playground, seem to envelope the kids once they climb in.

Harmony Playground 2

A youngster plays on a spinning piece of equipment at Harmony Playground on Thursday, April 25.

There are musical instruments on the playground that produce chords and chord progressions, which are shown to have a pleasing effect. There are also QR codes on each piece of equipment. Placing one’s smartphone camera over the code will pull up a mobile guide that shows how to use the item.

The first thing that stands out about the playground, however, is the rubberized floor. It’s bouncy and colorful, and also easy to navigate for those on wheels.

That’s the case for Sawyer French, a two-year-old from Danville. She uses a walker because she can’t walk on her own yet, and parks used to be hard for her to navigate. She used to not be able to play with her siblings because of the mulchy terrain.

Now, at Harmony Playground, she’s able to chase her siblings around all she wants. She zoomed back and forth on the rubber flooring Thursday, hardly stopping to catch her breath.

Sawyer French

Sawyer French, of Danville, plays at Harmony Playground on Thursday, April 25.

Her mother, Shannon, said she used to be concerned about whether or not Sawyer would be able to play with her friends. She doesn’t worry about that any longer.

“I have three typical kids and then one special needs kid,” Shannon French explained. “It’s somewhere that I can bring all of my kids and they can all play together.”

Along with the social upside, Harmony Playground will provide much-needed health benefits to local children with disabilities. According to Ruhl, research shows that obesity rates are 38 percent higher for children with disabilities.

“This new play space is designed to allow all individuals to be active, play and interact,” Ruhl said. “It offers life-changing benefits to many children and families in our community.”

Setting Knox County apart

In the months since Harmony Playground unofficially opened, Oster said families from Mansfield and Columbus have visited the park. The equipment is top-notch, sure. But all-inclusive playgrounds are also rare in the north central Ohio region. The closest one is in Westerville, Oster said, and there are none to the nearby north, east or west.

“We know people are driving in from actually outside of Mount Vernon to use the playground,” Oster said, “which is more business for the community.”

The bigger impact, however, might be social.

Jamie Sanders foresees the playground fostering an attitude of acceptance in the community. Children of all abilities will be able to play and communicate with each other, which could increase awareness and empathy. With everyone on the same playing field, no one seems like an outlier.

“They’ll play and they won’t even realize that there’s really a disability if there’s something different about them,” Sanders said. “They’ll just know that they can play on the same equipment and do the same things that the other kids are doing.”

In his address to the public on Thursday, Mavis told the crowd about his first trip to Harmony Playground – just three weeks ago. He came to the park on a sunny day, stood near the south entrance, and watched in awe.

“I saw a microcosm of what society oughta be,” he said. “It didn’t make any difference what color the skin was of the children; it didn’t make any difference what language they spoke, or what clothes they had on; it didn’t make any difference whether they had a disability or not. They were all playing.

“We had parents and grandparents, older brothers and sisters here, that were here watching. It came to my mind that this was much more than just a playground. This was a real gift for our community, the Knox County community.”

Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.