“Our mission is improving the lives of children with special needs and their families,” Paola Pizzano said as birds, toddlers and construction crews did their thing under a beautiful, blue sky at the Lee District RECenter. She was talking about The Joey Pizzano Memorial Fund (JPMF), as well as the many Fairfax County leaders and citizens who are bringing the Our Special Harbor Sprayground -- as in playground -- to life on the center’s grounds.
The fully-accessible water park is designed, as Pizzano put it, “to be a fun place for everybody to have fun with their peers, whether they’re disabled or they’re non-disabled.” She said this is very helpful for many families with special needs children, who often have other children without special needs. “Having been in the shoes of having both disabled and non-disabled children it’s not always easy taking them to family outings,” she said. It usually took her a long time to get everything together, and while in public “you get the looks … some of your children feel uncomfortable … it’s often not fun.”
Pizzano and her husband, Robert, have eight children, three with disabilities including six-year old Joey. He drowned in 1998. They founded JPMF to honor his love of the water and family time spent on the Chesapeake Bay, as well as to make sure other special needs children and their families could safely enjoy water-based activities.
The JPMF Splash water safety program has served more than 5,000 special needs children in the Washington Metropolitan Area since 2001, according to the seemingly tireless Pizzano, and has become a national model for similar programs for people with disabilities. “The water is a real equalizer,” she said. “We have seen that in the JPMF Splash program. You get children in the water and they’re all enjoying it, and they’re all having fun regardless of what their capabilities might be.”
Our Special Harbor Sprayground is a natural extension of the JPMF’s work. It officially opens on May 21st, thanks to the public-private partnership between JPMF and the Fairfax County Park Authority. The JPMF continues raising funds from a wide variety of county supporters for the sprayground, which will be operated by the park authority.
“[The park authority] fully supported it because they know how important it is,” Pizzano said. “This is a great area of the county and there’s nothing like it here. It very much compliments [the sprayground] being part of the Lee District family recreation area. You have a fully accessible treehouse. [The Fairfax County Park Foundation] is currently raising funds for a fully accessible playground similar to the Clemyjontri Park model they have in McLean. It’s a true destination for families that maybe have difficulty going anywhere for long periods of time.”
“So often people focus on what children with disabilities can’t do, and it’s such a wrong direction to view it from,” Pizzano said while watching workers complete sidewalks, lay sod and treat the “pool” area at the sprayground site. “They have so much to teach us: the joy of life, the simple accomplishments … These kids and these families are great, and they deserve to have a place where they can just enjoy each other.”