Westporters lead effort for playground that's also 'smart"™

In the beginning, all they wanted were a few swings for children to use during recess.

But with help from Stepping Stones Children's Museum and the support of area businesses, plans are taking shape for a top-notch science and energy park at All Saint's Catholic School in Norwalk.

The project is led by Alison Reilly and Amanda Gebicki, two Westport mothers who met while advocating for improved environmental conditions in Westport's public schools. The proposed 8,000-square-foot learning and recreational facility would serve as a prototype for dual-purpose, "smart" parks nationwide and be mapped into the statewide Connecticut Core Science Curriculum framework.

To fund the $183,000 project, the committee is asking the public to support their cause by voting for a $50,000 grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project.

According to Pepsi's program, $50,000 is given away monthly to 10 community projects that receive the highest number of votes.

To vote, send a text message -- "101491" to Pepsi "73774;" add the Pepsi Refresh Voting app to a personal Facebook page, or go online at www.refresheverything.com/ascsscienceenergypark. Voting ends Aug. 31.

Several All Saints students asked parishioners at nine area churches last Sunday to vote for their project and, as a result, the plan jumped 20 points.

"We are now in 46th place," said Reilly. "And we are going to keep pushing, pushing and pushing to get those votes in. The kids have worked so hard in getting the word out." The good news, she added, is the Pepsi Refresh program is structured so that the top 100 proposals receive an additional month to garner enough votes to qualify for the $50,000, if they fall short in August.

Also, Reilly explained that voters who sign up to receive daily voting reminders are eligible to win an Apple iPad if the project is awarded the $50,000 Pepsi grant.

Fundraising began in earnest during June and, to date, the committee has raised $24,000 in donations, including cash and donated materials. In addition, Gebicki noted that they've applied for $287,400 in grant money, including the $50,000 prize from the Pepsi Refresh Project.

All Saints students from several Fairfield County communities last week asked Norwalk Mayor Richard A. Moccia to urge residents to vote this week. "He said that he would help to spread the word among the 600 town employees," Reilly noted. "The kids have also put up about 130 flyers all over Norwalk."

The youngsters last week also held up a sign promoting their school project on the JumboTron at Yankee Stadium. "It was so exciting," said Reilly. "The kids were up there on the screen for a long time."

For years, All Saints students spent recess and outdoor gym playing on a blacktop in the school's parking lot. However, with reductions in school spending, there was little left in the budget to finance a playground construction plan. Reilly and Gebicki got the ball rolling on a fundraiser to build a simple play area for the children, however they said that once they enlisted the help of Kevin Carter, chief executive officer of Stepping Stones Children's Museum, the proposal to incorporate an educational science center started to take shape. He not only provided input about the importance of building a dual-purpose smart park, but also guided the committee toward funding sources.

"We are not only building a playground, we are staring a national movement toward making smarter use of our play space," explained Gebicki. "This project has been identified as a national prototype for similar smart parks throughout the United States. We need to make smarter use of our playgrounds."

The proposed outdoor, hands-on learning center would include gears, levers, pulleys, solar panels, wind elements, a rain harvesting unit and piezoelectric tiles. In addition, according to the committee's business plan, "clean, renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines will be located in the park and in areas adjacent to the park. Meters will be placed throughout the park which will invite the students to compare how much energy is being generated by variously alternative energy sources. In addition, students will be able to compare how much energy the school is consuming vs. how much energy they are generating through play."

"The science park will align wonderfully with our science curriculum maps," said All Saints Principal Nancy DiBuono. "Our science park committee is a dedicated and committed group of volunteers who want to build a park that the children can not only play on, but also learn from."

Assistant Principal Sally Norcross agreed. "The science park will be a creative and innovative way for students to learn about science." Since the park's site is the former Norwalk Airport, an aeronautical and aviation theme was incorporated into its design. The center of the park will feature a control tower with visuals representing Da Vinci's flying machines and Thomas Edison's helicopter designs.

And, although the project is located on the Norwalk school campus, it would be open to students at other schools in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport as well as students at the Norwalk public schools for field trips and after-school programs. "We believe that doing something so positive for our children, for our school and for our community is a great way to bring our community together," Gebicki said.

A corporate fundraising plan will be announced soon, and some businesses have already committed financial support and materials.

"We have received commitments from Radiant Manufacturing to donate an amazing wind wall, Englert Inc. to donate a rain-harvesting system to be installed by Gutter Guys, and a security system to be donated by Sirran. Affinion Group Inc, Vertrue, Bank of Ireland and BMW of Darien have sponsored components," Gebicki said. Under the supervision of Leathers & Associates, phase one of the park's construction is slated to begin in next spring. "Of course the timing is dependent on how quickly we can raise funds for the project," she added.

Right now, project organizers are grateful for assistance they've received. "The overwhelming support we have received from our superintendent, Dr. Margaret Dames, our principal, Nancy DiBuono, Father Tom Thorne and Assumption Parish and our entire community has been amazing and energizing," Gebicki said. "It is wonderful and humbling to be a part of and supported by such a loving and faith-filled community."