Interview: Panagiota Karagianni
Student in the University of Athens in Greek Literature
Ms T. Hoffman Conforti is known for designing the first playground for children with disabilities in Kenosha America. This achievement was my motivation to communicate with her and ask her to give me an interview, through which we unfold various other elements of her worldview. Her life is the children and her values are love, care and solidarity. Her motto of life: ”A society that embraces, engages, and invests in its children embraces, engages, and invest in its’ future’’. The playground is ready and has the name: ”Kenosha Dream Playground”. Thanks So much mrs.Conforti for giving us this online experience … Have fun all you readers too!
How long have you been thinking of making a playground for kids with special needs?
I seen an accessible playground in June of 2012 while on a family vacation in South Dakota. I did research in July of 2012 on accessible playgrounds and traveled to other communities to see what they looked like. I also researched on how to develop a park in my community by meeting with and asking questions to members of our Public works/ Parks department. In August of 2012 I went to pitch the idea to my city officials and we entered into a public private partnership. I and also partnered with the Kenosha Achievement Center which was an existing 501 c3 non-profit organization. I organized a group of people in my community who I called the “DREAM TEAM” to help me fundraise and plan for the community build. In three years the Kenosha Dream Playground Project raised one million dollars in our community and on Oct 10, 2015 we opened the Kenosha Dream Playground.
What was your inspiration or motivation on making the first step on implementing this area?
My motivation to build an accessible playground for people of all abilities was my students with special needs. We had always had to adapt educational experiences and also play opportunities for them so they could be included in the experiences. I was inspired by a three year old student of mine named Amity Forsythe .Amity was born with Spina Bifida but her drive and determination was so inspiring to me. I met with her parents Daryl and Jamie and ask them if Amity could be my inspiration child for the playground project. They eagerly accepted my proposal and we moved the project forward together as a team.
Were there any big problems or difficulties on your try to make your dream come true?
As far as problems or difficulties along the way raising to raising a million dollars was concerned at times it was tricky coming up with creative ways to fundraise and to keep the community engaged as there are a lot of worthy charities in my community who were also seeking donations. Sadly ,there also was a point during the project where the people in the neighborhood of the location we were considering building the playground loudly and publically objected to our plan. The neighbors in the area did not want the dream playground in their backyard which was ultimately a city park. They became a very vocal a organized oppositional group so ultimately we did decide to build the playground at an alternative location. In retrospect it was the best choice as it expedited the process.
The project for this special playground area cost 1milion$, but the citizens of Kenosha and other volunteers helped (and still helping you on any staff) gather this big amount of money. Is it about good marketing and a structured goal to motivate the volunteers to participate on this action or is it about a real motivation based on solidarity?
I believe that our success in raising a million dollars and also getting so many willing volunteers to help with the project was based on good marketing strategies, structured short and long term goals, good consistent motivational techniques and also on solidarity.
The action we just talked about on behalf of Kenosha’s citizens and volunteers is mirroring beliefs like solidarity, care and humanity. Where do you believe this beliefs are coming from? And, is at least one of them shown nowadays on everyday life by simple actions, or not so?
I believe that humanity, empathy and solidarity came from people wanting to contribute to their community in a positive way. At times it seems that when people behave in violent or negative ways they get a lot of attention in print and in the media. The truly remarkable thing with this project was that people from all walks of life and ages came together for the greater good of others. It was truly amazing how so many members of the community rallied around this project and supported it financially and that they gave selflessly of their free time so generously during the ten day community built.
This playground that is already open also accept typical children who can freely play with those with special needs and that was your basic aim: The abolition of social cliché and racism and a step of connection with those kids. What were the first reactions of typical kids that played with those with special needs? And also how playing can free the spirit and get us together?
The reactions of typical developing children to children with special needs are unique because children really don’t notice differences as much as adults do. They may ask questions but they are quick to move on and play with acceptance of people who are different than them. I think people fear people who are different than they are is something that is taught not something that you are born thinking about. The children just want to play together. During play children are learning about life and play is a basic fundamental right of all people. Play is extremely important for good healthy social development and for success later on in the job market. Learning to play nicely in the sandbox at a young age will help you learn to get along with people in society as an adult.
For lots of years you have been working with kids with special abilities and you know a lot about how to built a unique and constructive relationship. What urge you occupy with the education of children with special needs?
My students have taught me about life more than I could ever teach them. It is important as educators to remember and to celebrate every success of what a child can do and not to focus on what they cannot do. Each child is a blessing has its own unique abilities and we need to help them use them develop them in positive constructive ways.
According to your experience, what visions do you have for the education of these children in the future and how things have already been on education nowadays? Does the kind of already existing education style help children with special needs to be creative and innovative?
I feel that more money needs to be available for special education programs and teachers. The programs need to be long term and continue to help them enter into the job for market as young adults. We need to encourage our students to be creative and innovative by being patient, nurturing teachers. Educators, parents and community leaders need to come together as a team to help people with special needs achieve their goals. It is important to come up with new ideas to reach children with special needs. We need to teach the way they learn and not just have them learn the way we teach.
And talking about education, I want to tell me if you are for or against special schools and why? How can typical schools incorporate kids with special needs in a real way?
Specialized schools for children with special needs have their pros and cons. Inclusion for all children who may not be able to function in that type of learning environment is not always a good idea for all children depending on their cognitive functioning levels .Sometimes it is better to work on basic life skills in a smaller setting and not in the typical classroom. I think it is important and that it is best to find the right fit for each individual child. There needs to be options other than the typical education mainstream learning environment. Educational opportunities as well as specialized classes and schools should be based on what the children or families need to be successful. Seeking out the best educational opportunities is a difficult task for parents with children who have special needs so I believe that there needs to be options for parents to make informed decisions about the various options.
Which are the supplies that help them deal with the extra problems and difficulties of their whole life, those that typical people may do not face up? How could the contact with kids that share the same disability help them feel like a team and get over the price of being different?
Parents, child care providers, educators and people in the community all need to stand up and help advocate for the rights of all people with special needs. We need to make sure that people with special needs have specialized equipment that they need to be successful in multiple environments. Specialized adaptive equipment is very very expensive and unattainable for some families. As far as programming goes and equal educational opportunities it is good to get children with disabilities and children without disabilities together in theater, art, music, sports, computer and science opportunities. When you can bring people with special needs together it provides an opportunity for networking between the parents and the adults in the child’s lives. Everyone benefits from the wealth of information and from sharing information about additional educational and play opportunities.
Where do you take your elements that push you act as an activist in the name of these kids from?
I get my inspiration to be an advocate for people with special needs because I believe that every person can contribute to society if given an equal opportunity. I believe we should accept ALL people and treat them with dignity and respect. We should love them ALL unconditionally. I continually strive to give and receive unconditional love to everyone regardless of their abilities.
In addition, what and on what degree changed your contact with these kids your way of thinking in life? Is there a need of educational and multicultural adequacy in order someone to eavesdrop the multiple needs of these people?
I feel there is definite need for improvement in the educational system for people with special needs especially in the area of communication needs for students who are non-verbal. We need to strive and improve and help find ways for them to communicate. We need to provide a large variety of technology and technological devices that are suited for the cognitive abilities of each nonverbal person.
How did society use to treat those kids the previous years and how is it treating them nowadays? What have changed and in what degree?
When I think about the lack of educational opportunities of people with special needs I think about the past and how their needs were not met. Now in the present time we are working harder to meet their needs with a more team like approach. I feel that in the future we need to make it a priority to invest more time, more money and more resources to improve our educational system to support people of all abilities.
What changes would you suggest on government and society on supporting and improving the quality of those kids life’s’?
I feel there should be more funding directed towards programs that help people with special needs. There should be an increase in educational opportunities which include speech, language, physical and occupational therapies. We also need to focus on teaching basic life skills. We must help to prepare people with special needs for their adult lives by creating and funding programs that will assist them and give them an opportunity for employment and financial stability. We need to increase these programs and give each person the tools they will need to be successful and contribute to society regardless of their abilities.
With what feelings you would describe the achieving of your goal?
I feel so blessed to have had my community embrace the vision and believe in the dream to improve and enrich the quality of life of ALL people. My dream to build a playground for children, grandparents, and veterans of all abilities has changed me and it has restored my faith in humanity. When I go to the Dream Playground and I see the smiles on the faces of the children and I hear the joy of their laughter I am extremely happy and at times I am simply moved to tears.
Do you have three words that come up to your mind right now and can guide us to a better world?
The three words that come to mind to guide us to having a better world are peace, acceptance and unconditional love. (I know it’s actually 4 words.)
And now we are reaching to an end, I would like to give for our readers and our editors on magazine a wish…
And now we are reaching to an end I would like to give your readers and your editors on magazine a wish:
“I wish all of you joy, happiness, peace, health and a blessing for lifelong learning.”
Tammy J. Conforti
Kenosha Dream Playground
Founder and President