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Youth remembered with playground dedication

Nathan Waggoner was a graduate of Open Door School, who had an unmatched zest for life and a remarkable way with a basketball.

Weeks before his death in 2003, while still in his mid-20s, he expressed a fear that is held by so many, but is maybe most intense for those whose lives are cut tragically short.

Nathan was afraid that he would not be remembered.

On Tuesday, the Lawrence County Board of Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities did their part to insure a sort of immortality for Nathan as they dedicated their new playground at Open Door School to his memory, with the hope that every time a child at Open Door slides, jumps, runs or swings they will remember the name of Nathan Waggoner.

A community of caring

Paul Mollett, superintendent of the Lawrence County Board of MRDD, said the project got off the ground when Open Door was informed by a school inspector that their playground was not up to standards. Mollett agreed, but saw no way to fund a new playground.

Soon after, as luck or fate would have it, Mollett found his solution in the form of a dedicated local nurse.

After Cindy Brown and her 15 year-old son Alex, a freshman at St. Joe, saw the condition that the Open Door School's playground was in, which she described as "just not playable," they were inspired to do something, anything to help. That led to a $40,000 fund-raising campaign, culminating in the construction of the new playground on July 31, 2004.

Thanks to Brown, funds were received from concerned individuals, business, and, according to Mollett, every parent teacher organization in the county.

Though the monies were there, the playground still had to be constructed, an arduous task gladly undertaken one stormy, muddy summer day by the Ironton Lion's Club, Open Door staff, and other community volunteers.

Thanks to the dedication of the Board of MRDD, the tenacity of Cindy Brown, and the generosity of the community, the children of Open Door now have a place to play and Nathan Waggoner has a standing testament to the lives that he touched.

A spirit of play

After the ceremony, Nathan's family took a moment with the plaque that will be displayed on the playground, which will act as a tribute not only to their child, but also to the dozens who helped the dream of a new play area come to life.

Through her tears and proud smile, Nathan's mother Carolyn said she couldn't imagine a more fitting tribute for her son, who was so imbued with a wonderful sense of fun.

"I can't think of a better word than 'play,'" Carolyn Waggoner said. "Nathan was full of the spirit of play. He would have loved this…he would have loved this. He won't be forgotten."

Nathan's playground won't just benefit the students at Open Door, but the entire community, as it is also open to the public after school hours and on weekends. Sarah Diamond Burroway, Chair of the MRDD Awareness Committee, hopes the playground will not only be fun for local children but also help them to understand their friends who live with MRDD.

"It helps further the intent of breaking down those barriers," Burroway said. "If children can play together regardless of wheelchairs or walkers or any type of disability that might be present- if you ever watch children play, they don't pay attention to those things, so maybe adults can take a lesson from that too."

Cause for celebration

The playground dedication isn't the only thing the Lawrence County Board of MRDD has to crow about. The ceremony is just the first step in MRDD Awareness Month, 31 days intended to help the public understand, support, and appreciate those with developmental delays. And hopefully carryover into the entire year.

Tomorrow night, the Tri-State Industries Employee Council will host the next event in MRDD Awareness month, the "Think Ability First" Dance at TSI in Coal Grove.

As the employees of TSI dance the night away, they will also be helping to feed the underprivileged as their admission price is food which will be donated to the Church of Christ, and First United Methodist pantries.

March 14, MRDD will take its cause to the court at the 5th Annual March Madness Basketball Event, as the students of Open Door School will challenge the alumni. Later that day, the employees of TSI will trade their dancing shoes for Air Jordans as they show up the team of local media all-stars.

Just five days later, the area's best chefs will congregate at TSI to try and out-spice one another as they compete in the 6th Annual Chili Fest for MRDD Awareness on March 19th. Besides heaping bowls of "Texas Red," the event will offer up live music, local crafts and more.

MRDD "At the Movies" will take place on March 21, with a showing of the film "Door to Door," which tells the true story of a man with cerebral palsy and his successes. The film will be shown at Ohio University Southern as part of the Family Life Conference.

Throughout March, the MRDD Board will manage an on-going food drive as well as joining with the Ironton Lions Club in the Eye Glasses for Sight Project which will collect used glasses and frames for those in need.

More information on any of these events is available by contacting the Board of MRDD at 1-800-231-MRDD.

Through these events, Burroway hopes the public will gain a better understanding not of where those with MRDD are hampered, but where they excel.

"The abilities rather than the disabilities, the potential of the person," Burroway said. "A lot of times in our community, people still have a stigma about things they don't understand, so by having events that we welcome the public to, education helps erase that stigma. More than that, I think first-hand exposure to people with disabilities helps people understand that these children are really no different than any other child."

Letting go

Tuesday's ceremony closed with the students of Open Door School releasing balloons with their names attached, with the hopes that their balloon will travel the furthest and receive a response from some distant locale. The older children cheered their balloons on as they were swept by a chilly wind into the March sky, as the younger ones cried, already missing their plaything.

It was then that the truth in Burroway's words was made abundantly clear. As the children stared into the sky, trying to catch a glimpse of their balloons long after they had disappeared from view, putting their faith in a nickel's worth of plastic, helium and string, they were not children with disabilities but simply… children.

After the launch, the students and teachers congregated in the auditorium for cookies and lemonade. From time to time, one would stray from the pack to examine the plaque honoring Nathan Waggoner, their friend who exemplified that sameness that Burroway is so desperate to communicate.

Like anyone, Nathan wished only to spend his days well, and to be remembered for how he lived them.

Now, thanks to the tireless efforts of those who loved him, it would seem that he has finally gotten his wish.