A little help for my friends
When Lucas Fritsche was 8 years old, he noticed one of his friends in a wheelchair would come outside during recess but wouldn’t stay long. Some days the friend even preferred to stay inside.
When Lucas asked him why, the fellow third-grader told him it was difficult to get onto the playground and into a swing to play.
“Lucas’ feelings were hurt, and he was saddened that his friend couldn’t play outside with him,” said Jennifer Fritsche, Lucas’ mother. “He started talking to us about how he wanted to build a playground where everyone could play. We explained to him that takes a lot of money and it’s not something that you can just do, but Lucas was persistent.”
“It’s not fair that he can’t play outside with us,” Lucas told his parents. Jennifer and her husband, John, have two other children, Halie, 8, and Landon, 10 months, and live in Perryville, Mo., on the farm that has been in the Fritsche family since 1892. John grows 400 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans every year, helps his father with another 500 acres and raises 40 cow/calf pairs. He also serves on his local MFA board and church council. Jennifer works in accounting for a large construction company.
Soon after their conversation, Jennifer received a call from the principal at Perryville Elementary School. Unbeknownst to her, Lucas had also been talking to his teachers about the idea. The principal suggested speaking to one of the school’s parent groups to see if they could raise funds to improve the playground.
Lucas, who has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism, did his homework. Back at school, standing in front of a darkened classroom with a PowerPoint presentation his mom helped him create, Lucas began his pitch to the parent group.
“Some of my friends only get limited time on the playground. If they are in wheelchairs, they need more help entering the playground,” he started, reading from note cards with a little help from Mom on the trickier words.
In the small voice of a then 9-year-old, Lucas explained what he wanted to do, why he wanted to do it and how he wanted to raise some of the money.
“Does anybody have any questions?” he asked, concluding the presentation.
With support from parents, Perryville passed a bond measure that allocated money for school improvements, including upgrading playgrounds. Word had spread of Lucas’ idea.
“Coincidentally, I serve on the disability development board for Perry County with the mayor,” Jennifer said. “We were sitting around talking about Lucas’ presentation at one of our meetings, and he told me if we could raise the money, we could pick any of the available city land to build an all-inclusive playground from scratch.”
From there, the Fritsches and the Fun For All Committee embarked on a grander plan—Lucas and Friends Backyard Adventures—a playground for everyone.
Since his first presentation, Lucas has done several television and newspaper interviews. The kind-hearted youngster has posed for photos, been the front man for fundraising events and accepted checks for up to $100,000.
“You can put him anywhere, and he’ll talk about the playground,” Jennifer said.
And little by little, with dances, bake sales, movie nights, prize giveaways, and in-kind donations, they’ve raised close to another $250,000.
The Fritsches are working with Unlimited Play in St. Charles, Mo., and Little Tikes equipment to design the playground. The layout includes a merry-go-round that is flush with the ground to allow wheelchair accessibility, high-back and generation swings, spongy surfaces, a tree house structure with ramps, musical elements and more.
“The whole concept behind these playgrounds is parallel play,” Jennifer said. “Kids with disabilities will play side-by-side with other kids. It’s designed to be super fun for everyone, so there’s no difference.”
It will take close to $1 million to complete the full design. About 20 percent to their goal, the Fritsches plan to build incrementally by adding different portions of the playground as funds become available. They’re hoping to break ground in late spring or early summer of this year on the selected site at Robert J. Miget Memorial Park in Perryville.
“We want to get started so people know this isn’t just talk,” Jennifer said. “We’re really going to do this.”
Lucas, now 11, said his favorite pieces of equipment in the playground design are zip lines with high-back chairs and the tree house, which will provide ample shade, ramps for alternate entry and specialized handrails.
“The tree house is custom-made for this playground,” Jennifer said. “It even has a hammock underneath for therapists to come and work with the kids. We had a public forum on what aspects people would like to see in the playground, so the community has really been a big part of this.”
But more than the equipment, Lucas said the best part is that there will be a place for everyone on this playground.
“I’m most excited to see all the kids play together and nobody being left out,” Lucas said.
For more information on Lucas and Friends Backyard Adventures, visit facebook.com/lucasandfriendsplayground/. Contributions can be made online at unlimitedplay.org/playground/lucas-friends-backyard-adventures/. Click the donate button on the right side of the page.
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