The sun came out on Saturday morning just in time for an emotional ribbon cutting ceremony at Garden City Elementary School, where the Jeffrey Girard II Memorial Therapeutic Playground was officially dedicated.
The community playground is handicap-accessible and includes two memorial benches and an interactive sensory playground created by four fifth-grade students at Garden City School, Giuliana Aiken, John Fang, Roman Duarte, and Fatoumata Jaieth and their art teacher, Marisa Iacovone.
The ceremony was filled with many family members, friends, playground committee members, students and members of the school department, school committee and city council in Cranston, as well as Mayor Allan Fung, and there was a lot of laughter as well as many tears.
Dennis DeJesus of Special Olympics was the emcee of the event but also was also an integral member of the committee that worked tirelessly to allow Jeffreys playground to come to fruition, which he emphasized was a group effort. Before beginning, he asked all present to bow their heads for a moment of silence for all that had taken place recently in the world.
He then thanked the committee for their hard work, listing them each by name, and asked for a round of applause for all involved. Throughout the morning, DeJesus also thanked all from the local community who donated in-kind donations which helped to make the community playground a reality, including Angelo Cappy Simone, Sharon Girards brother, for all of his help getting such in-kind donations.
“Everyone in this audience has played a small role in the construction of this community playground,” he said. “It is indeed a community playground.”
The event began with a blessing from Fr. Francis Ohara, who stated that Jeffery brought great joy and a holy presence to all who knew him.
Mayor Allan Fung brought greetings from the City of Cranston and thanked all of those present who were instrumental in bringing Jeffreys playground to Cranston.
“All of us are coming together because we are Cranston,” he said. “Cranston is a very special place, we have wonderful people, wonderful families, and Jeffrey was certainly an integral part of our community. He gave so much of himself. For all of us who got a chance to get to know Jeffrey, we know the deep impact he had, not only with Special Olympics, but he was an Eagle Scoutman as well as a faithful parishioner and a member of the Knights.”
“As Father O'Hara indicated, he would always put a smile on peoples faces and was always helpful in whatever endeavor, so when the committee came together with the Girard family on that afternoon in the mayor’s office, it was an easy ask, and it was easy to say yes to honor one of our own who has done so much for our community,” Fung continued. “On behalf of all the residents in Cranston, we are very proud to be here today in support of a wonderful young man. Jeffrey is up there looking down on us, and he gave us a little ray of sunshine, and that’s what this is all about, a very special place for our youth in this section of our city to be able to enjoy for the rest of their lives and to remember a wonderful part of our community.”
He thanked the Girard family as he concluded.
Michael Traficante spoke on behalf of the school department.
“It certainly is an honor and a privilege to be here today, and for a variety of reasons,” he said. “Jeffrey brought us all together. Several months ago the committee reached out not only to the school department and the mayor, but also to the charter school in the city of Cranston. We had a number of young men and young women under the leadership of Jay Sabitoni that came here and basically helped to demolish the old playground and helped to build the new playground. Were deeply honored that we participated in this event.”
He noted that the service and dedication to the committee and all those involved in the playground gave testament to the art of giving and the art of caring.
Jay Sabitoni of the charter school agreed with Traficante and said that hands-on exercises reinforced the lessons that the students at the school learned about not only construction but also the intrinsic value of giving back to their community was a win-win for all.
“This was such a great accomplishment, and we could not have done it alone, but I was so happy to be a part of it,” he said. “When I threw it out there, there was overwhelming support and I could not be more proud of what we accomplished here today.”
Deborah Sohegan, committee member spoke next.
“What a dream come true for Jeffreys family,” she said. “Hard work, dedication and the love a special young man brought this project to fruition. From the inception of this project, the outpouring of support, encouragement, and love has been tremendous. At our very first get- together someone said we would never be able to do this. The lesson learned: never underestimate the power of the love of Jeffrey and a mom on a mission.”
She noted that Jeffrey’s infectious smile and twinkle in his eye made him irresistible, and touched many more lives than they ever realized until they began to undertake the playground project and began to hear the stories of Jeffrey and his effect on others. She explained that he really was the Mayor of Garden City.
“One thing I am sure of is Jeffrey would want us all to be happy and continue to smile. What an appropriate tribute to honor this young man than a playground where all children of all abilities and their families can socialize, make new friends, some memories, have fun and just laugh,” she said. “One other way we can each honor Jeffrey, when you pass someone on the street or in the store or wherever you might be, just give them a little nod, a smirk or a grin. I am quite certain that Jeffrey will be looking down and once again smile.”
Committee member Dot McDonough thanked all who worked together to contribute to the project, representing the community, including the kids from the construction career program, the kids from Cranston Area Career and Technical Center, the kids from Cranston East, and the members of the Knights of Columbus.
“I had no idea that there were so many people out there that Jeffrey had touched in so many ways,” she said. “I want to thank each and every one of you, and let you know that there was no donation too small that didn’t mean everything to us. Thank you for being here, and thank you to Jeffrey for taking the rain out of this.”
Garden City Elementary School Principal Bryan Byerlee brought greetings from the school. Byerlee began his tenure at the school in 2017, and his work with the committee soon after.
“I never had the opportunity to meet and get to know Jeffrey, but I feel as if I have gotten to know him over the past year and a half through my work with this committee and the core values that they have demonstrated,” he said. “Really, what shines through is their awareness of and their commitment to children of all abilities no matter the difference, no matter the need, their unwavering focus, that mom on a mission, and collaboration, their working together to achieve a shared goal and their dedication to community service and serving all the kids in this community, this really echoes the core values of Garden City School as well.”
He credited Iacovone and her fifth-grade students for the sensory path they painted, which provides a way for students to get out and move in an exciting way throughout the day.
“I’m so eager to see all of our kids on this playground for years to come, and I know that Jeffrey will be smiling on each of them as they play and are happy out here as they play every day,” he said.
The final speaker was Sharon Girard, mother of Jeffrey Girard II, who gave an emotional thank you to the group, especially to DeJesus.
“Thank you so much to Dennis DeJesus for everything you have done,” she said. “You were very special to Jeffrey. I’ve always referred to Jeffrey as ‘our Jeffrey,’ because he might have been born to Jeff and I, but everybody here, everybody who is not here whose lives he touched, he’s their Jeffrey too. Jeffrey became part of all your lives and because of this, we were able to make this beautiful playground for children of all abilities.
She told a story from Jeffrey’s childhood when he would introduce himself to all he met so that none were strangers.
“So with hopes like this, you hope that a playground, where children, families, people, come to have fun sit around, perhaps have a picnic lunch, get together, talk amongst one another and become friends, share the spirit of love, share happiness in the small things in life,” she said. “Don’t let things, separate people. People need to work together, people need to be happy, children need to be happy. Our children need to grow up in happy neighborhoods and learn love and compassion and trust in God.”
She thanked her committee, the donators, the workers, and all present the Knights of Columbus for their hard work in helping to make the playground a success.
She reminded everyone to look at all abilities, to focus on the good, not the bad.
“Enjoy the playground,” she said. “Jeffrey, this is for you. This is how your memory will last forever. You loved children, you loved people. They’re here for you baby, and we can keep on having people be happy in your legacy.”