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Charlie’s Playground honors late South Colonie first-grader

A new playground at Saddlewood Elementary school in the South Colonie school district will be built to honor a former student.

The project is named "Charlie's Playground" after former Saddlewood student Charlie Fernandez, a first-grader who died in April 2021. She was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2018 shortly after beginning Kindergarten. She went blind in 2020 as a result of a brain tumor. Danielle Fernandez is Charlie's mom.

"On April 19, 2021, Charlie passed away. Some of her happiest days were spent on playgrounds. So to make a playground that could be used, by all, would have meant the world to her," said Fernandez.

When one of Charlie's teachers, Sarah Norton, heard that Danielle dreamed of building a playground, she hopped on social media and discovered the national foundation "Where Angels Play," which has built playgrounds in needy communities across the country, each reflecting the personality of the child or teacher for whom it is named.

"Charlie loved school, she loved to play," Norton said. "Charlie was full of life. She embodied life, her spirit just shines through every day, every day. There's not a day when one of my students doesn't talk about 'Charlie would love that, you know, Charlie would love this.' She's never forgotten. And I think having a playground especially built by Where Angels Play, where her face will be there and everything she loved will be incorporated into that playground."

Where Angels Play founder Jim Plourde says the foundation is glad to honor Charlie.

"When her sight was taken, she never stopped. She never complained. She scooted along. She loved doing things," said Plourde. "And as a father of two girls myself, I understand that at the end of the day, Charlie wanted to be one thing and one thing only, and that was a child that loves to play. So her favorite thing was to go on the playground. To the dismay maybe of some of our teachers and some of the other staff seeing this young child go up, but she climbed the playground, she went down the slide, and she smiled. She laughed and she loved.”

Plourde says Charlie's playground will support the long term health and well being of Saddlewood stidents by fostering a sense of social connectedness and belonging. Norton says fundraising is all volunteer driven, currently standing at half of the roughly $130,000 goal.

"So we're going to call it the All Abilities playground. It will be a playground that will help be accessible to all, including children who are visually impaired," Norton said. "Our goal is to have Braille for children, our goal is to have a gate by the slide so that when children climb up, if they can't see they can feel the gate. And they know 'Oh, I'm at the top of the slide. So I'm going to open the gate, and we can go down the slide safely.' Were going to have tactile elements incorporated throughout it so that children that might need more sensory input, it will all be within that playground. It will be Charlie's favorite color, which is pink."

Scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2023, the playground will replace a much smaller one at Saddlewood.

About the Project

Through the collaboration with the Fernandez family, national foundation Where Angels Play and other area organizations inclduing Hannaford and SEFCU, a new all abilities playground will be built on the grounds of South Colonie’s Saddlewood Elementary School with feature areas for children with visual impairments.

The project, expected to be completed by fall of 2023, will be led by the Where Angels Play Foundation, with oversight by the South Colonie Central School District and the Fernandez family. Over the years, the Where Angels Play Foundation has worked with families across the northeast to establish playground areas like the one proposed most notably in honor of students and staff including those impacted by the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy in Newtown, CT.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.