The youngsters who play in Joey’s Park near Winn Brook Elementary School in Belmont never met the little boy for whom the park is named. But their parents did. As children, they carried Joey on their backs up flights of stairs too taxing for his small body. They ran the bases for him in baseball games, and waited impatiently for him to finish his daily treatments for cystic fibrosis so they could go out and play.
And, after Joey died in 1986 at just 12 years old, they helped build a playground in his honor.
Now, Joey’s Park is falling apart. It closed briefly last year after a safety review raised concerns, and reopened on a temporary basis only after some play equipment was removed. It is past its useful life, according to the town.
But the playground is about to get a second chance: A brand new facility — to be designed by students at the elementary school Joey attended, and constructed by Belmont residents in an old-fashioned community barn-raising — is in the works.
A new generation of Belmont children will build Joey a playground.
“He’s one child, but he’s also every child,” said Ellen Schreiber, copresident of the Winn Brook Parent Teacher Association, and one of the leaders of the effort to rebuild Joey’s Park. “Joey died 26 years ago, but the park lives on.”
On Sept. 20, a design firm called Play by Design will set up at the Winn Brook School and conduct interviews with its students about the most fantastical playground they can imagine. Then, designers will hunker down and draft a preliminary sketch that will be presented to the community after a nighttime ice cream social.
The barn-raising that will bring the new playground to life is tentatively scheduled for September 2013.
“I think it’s just honoring his spirit,” said Joey’s father, Joe O’Donnell. “I feel tremendously proud of the fact that I had any part of that, that he ended up being part of that.”
Joey suffered from cystic fibrosis, a disease that causes the lungs and digestive track to fill with thick mucous that eventually makes it impossible to breathe or break down food. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the median age of survival is the late 30s. Since Joey’s birth, O’Donnell has raised more than $250 million to fight cystic fibrosis. After Joey died, O’Donnell and a group of friends started The Joey Fund in his name. O’Donnell and his wife had two daughters after Joey, who are involved in fund-raising for the cause.
“There’s a kid that could have been sour, he could have given up,” O’Donnell said. But Joey was a tough little guy, the most popular kid in his class, a prankster, a master at Donkey Kong — “the pinball wizard,” his dad said.
“Our biggest problem in those 12 years was what to do when it rained out — the last thing he needed was a cold. The last thing he needed was to be raised in a bubble,” O’Donnell said. “We didn’t exactly throw him out in a rainstorm, but there were no boundaries to what he could do.”
The original Joey’s Park was born out of the community’s grief. A thousand people attended his funeral. O’Donnell remembers Joey’s friends gathering at the house and asking what they could do.
Over the next three years, Belmont residents raised money to fund the playground. Joey’s Park was designed with inspiration from students’ drawings.
It was built in about a week in 1989 by hundreds of Belmont residents.
“I remember that it was quite an event,” said Rich Kershaw, who helped build the swings and now sits on the design committee for the new park. “Joey’s situation was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Everyone was pretty pumped to do something in his honor.”
Kershaw was a few years ahead of Joey in school. He remembers Joey, impeccably dressed, lingering at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for somebody to offer him a ride up.
The middle school’s teachers, Kershaw said, didn’t like the piggy-back system: They were worried someone would drop Joey.
“I was enough of a punk to help him out,” said Kershaw. “He didn’t really want to take the elevator. He wanted to be with everyone else.”
Now, Kershaw is the father of three little girls. Joey’s Park is their favorite playground, though they’re too young to know Joey’s story.
“Every time I put my girls on those swings, I think, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, we built that so long ago. And now I’m putting my daughters on these swings,’” he said. “It’s a pretty emotional thing. I think that’s why it’s going to be Joey’s Park again.”
Iris Chin Ponte never knew Joey, but she grew up in town, and was one of the children who sketched out wild ideas for the original park. Now a mother of two, she says it feels like Joey’s Park has come full circle.
“Now, as a parent, when I bring my children there, I always think of him,” she said. “I think of how joyful it is to be present with my children in that space, and I think about the grief that his parents must have suffered. But also how they took that grief and turned it into a positive experience for people. It’s such a selfless choice.”
Her 3-year-old son William knows about Joey, she said, though he doesn’t understand what happened to him.
“I told him that Joey is gone now, and that his parents and family wanted us to think of him when we’re having fun,” she said.
Joey’s Park, said O’Donnell, belongs to all the children of Belmont.
“I think it’s a nice thought that in 25 years there will be a new generation of parents and children talking about how to rebuild it,” he said. “It’s not going to last forever. His spirit will last forever.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org