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Playground visionary honored by magazine

Reader’s Digest chose Mardy McGarry for its ‘Make It Matter’ series
Ozaukee Press staff

POSSIBILITY PLAYGROUND organizers Sue Mayer (left) and Mardy McGarry posed in front of the play area during the final stages of construction last year. Ozaukee Press Photo by Bill Schanen IV

When Mardy McGarry of Port Washington turned to page 41 of the September issue of Reader’s Digest, she was amazed and pleased.

There was a picture of she and Sue Mayer surrounded by special needs students at Lincoln Elementary School in Port Washington and a story about Possibility Playground.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God, we’re in a national magazine,’” McGarry said. “It’s pretty exciting. What a neat promotion for Port Washington and the playground.”

McGarry’s story, “All Work, All Play,” is part of the magazine’s “Make It Matter” series. It explains how the playground, which is the length of a football field in Upper Lake Park and accessible to children of all abilities, became a reality with the help of thousands of volunteers.

Stacy Peters, Possibility Playground fund-raising chairman, nominated McGarry for the honor in December. Those chosen for the “Make It Matter” series receive $1,500 for their cause.

Last year, Reader’s Digest Foundation gave a total $1 million over one year to 10 nonprofit organizations, but that ended in December, a Reader’s Digest editor said.

Peters had hoped McGarry would be eligible for the larger award.

McGarry, who didn’t know Peters nominated her, was interviewed by phone in May by Sally Schultheiss, who wrote the article.

“She interviewed me for almost an hour and called back two or three times,” McGarry said. “Then a fact-checker called. The one thing I was not comfortable with was the ‘I’ statements. I didn’t do it by myself.”

McGarry, who has been a special education teacher for 28 years, came up with the idea for the all-inclusive playground because so often her students could not use play equipment or their wheelchairs got stuck in sand or wood chips surrounding structures.

Mayer, whose 8-year-old son Sam has Down’s syndrome, joined her in the effort and soon a cadre of community-minded people were holding fund-raisers and seeking donations to raise $450,000.

Peters, who wrote numerous grants to obtain money for the playground, said McGarry deserves the honor.

“We had such a good story to tell and wanted to share it,” Peters said. “Mardy inspired a whole community to get the playground started. She had this vision and got a whole lot of people on board to make it happen.”

When asked by Schultheiss why she wanted to build a playground for children with disabilities, McGarry replied, “It’s only when you build a playground for children with disabilities that you build one for all children.”

The playground was built over six days in September with more than 2,800 volunteers, ranging from children to senior citizens.

The Reader’s Digest article has now made the effort known nationally and internationally.
“If it inspires anybody to build another playground like this, wow,” McGarry said.