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In memory of Mount Airy mother killed in April, town moving forward with all-inclusive playground plan

The Mount Airy Town Council has decided to move forward with its plan to build an all-inclusive playground at Watkins Park in memory of a local mother who advocated for one before she was killed this past spring.

The idea to build an all-inclusive playground came about when town resident Heather Zujkowski, mother of three, petitioned the town to add a swing at Watkins Park for her son, who is disabled, after it was discovered that there was no equipment in any of the town’s playgrounds compliant with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

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That was before Zujkowski was killed, along with 18-year-old Noah Homayouni, by Zujkowski’s estranged husband in a murder-suicide in April.

After the swing was installed at Watkins Park, Zujkowski advocated for an all-inclusive playground to be built at the park as well. This led town officials to recognize the need for a universally designed and ADA-compliant playground in Mount Airy.

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“The Town of Mount Airy reached out to Ava’s T-21 Foundation, which is the foundation that I work with, and asked us to purchase and donate the swing, and we did. The swing is currently at Watkins Park,” Councilwoman Pamela Reed said. “But that’s how the playground project started.”

The playground project, which is currently in its first phase, will be located on the grounds of the old skate park, which was demolished in 2018 due to age and deterioration.

“In addition to being good for Mount Airy, we’re actually trying to address an overlooked part of our community, those with disabilities,” Mount Airy Mayor Patrick Rockinberg said. “There are very limited inclusive playgrounds in the area, if any. So it’s a great place to provide this service for people that do have special needs.”

The new ADA-compliant play place will include equipment that can be enjoyed by people of any age or ability, according to Reed.

“Whether you’re 0 or 99, you will have access to this playground,” she said. “If you’re a grandmother taking your grandchild to the playground you will be able to access it. If you are a mother with a toddler and an infant in a stroller, you will be able to access it.”

The plans that were unveiled at previous council meetings showcase a Berliner pentagode rope climbing structure, a wheelchair-accessible aero glider, play cubes, handicapped-accessible swings, a music area, handicap ramps and other features designed to be accessible for people of all ages regardless of ability.

The swing that was installed previously at Watkins Park, separate from the site of the new playground, allows handicapped children to swing without needing to hold onto any metal chains for support because they are strapped into a seat equipped with safety harnesses.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Community Parks and Playgrounds application and project agreement, the new playground will “not be limited to kids with disabilities, but also include adults, caregivers, and elderly people, for them to enjoy a gathering place and playground with structures that are easier to use.”

The design was created by Playground Specialist Inc., a playground equipment supplier based in Thurmont.

According to Reed, a pavilion is also included in the first phase of the playground plans, in order to provide an adequate sitting space accompanied by shade.

The first phase of the playground project will be partially funded by a state grant of $200,000 that is still pending final state approval and will also be funded by Ava’s T-21 Foundation, a nonprofit based in Mount Airy that strives to promote inclusion and acceptance of those with Down syndrome. The foundation will be contributing $75,000 to the project.

The town will be ordering playground equipment once state approval for the grant is finalized in the coming weeks. The equipment will then sit in a warehouse during the winter and will be installed during the spring of 2021.

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An amphitheater is also being planned to be installed during the second phase of the project, according to Reed. The amphitheater, if installed, will be paid for by the town.

As part of the second phase, which is planned to begin shortly after the first is completed, the second half of the playground’s equipment will be installed within the next one to two years, according to Reed.

Reed hopes she can name the playground after Zujkowski’s son in order to memorialize her.

“We will absolutely dedicate a portion of the playground to her and her efforts related,” Reed said.

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