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Students with special needs given new playground

LAWRENCEVILLE - Although Skylar Gwin is confined to a wheelchair, it doesn't stop him from playing shortstop on his softball team or swinging on the playground.

The Special Needs School of Gwinnett, where Gwin attends classes, accommodates its wheelchair-bound students with a wheelchair-accessible swing. But without a sidewalk, Gwin, 17, of Auburn, struggled to get from the classroom to the swing, either negotiating his wheelchair across bumpy terrain in dry weather or sticky mud following a rain.

Eighteen of Gwinnett County government's managers and supervisors made that trek much easier for Gwin when they installed a sidewalk at the school and deep, soft mulch in the playground.

The nonprofit Special Needs School of Gwinnett educates children and young adults with physical or mental disabilities. The project to upgrade its playground is part of the Excel management-training program facilitated by the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute.

In 2001, Gwinnett County incorporated Excel into its Leadership Institute that prepares the next generation of leaders, said Tina Woodard, Gwinnett County's organizational development manager.

The institute is a three-tiered process that includes the Leadership Academy, Excel Management Development Program and culminates with the Executive Drive Program. Each program is several months long, and participants are nominated by their superiors.

"The Excel program is tailored for government leadership and teaches management tools, skills and teamwork," said Lana Chumachenko, business officer for the Gwinnett County Department of Community Services. "The biggest thing I have learned is to build teamwork. I always depend on myself to get everything done, but without teamwork, we could not have completed this huge project."

The playground was installed at the school this past spring, but funding didn't stretch far enough to buy the mulch and plant the trees that would make the playground more comfortable. When students fell, they hit hard ground. As the temperature rose, the unsheltered playground grew hot.

"I saw the need as soon as I drove past the playground," said Don Hefner, project manager for the sales tax program.

Excel participants raised almost $8,000 in donations of funds and materials, then gave their time to construct a sidewalk, build a border around the playground and cover the bare ground with a fabric base and mulch. Workers expect to complete the project this weekend when they plant sod and 15 red maple trees.

"It has been most helpful," Ann Anderson said of the volunteers' work. Her 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, has attended the school for 15 years and plans to work as an assistant paraprofessional at the school when she graduates.

A playground grand opening is planned for June 27.

Special Needs School of Gwinnett opened in 1987 holding classes in a large closet in the Christ the Lord Lutheran Church in Lawrenceville. Officials are now working to raise funding to pay for construction of a $1.6 million, 30,000-square-foot facility with classrooms, therapy rooms, cafeteria, teacher lounge and office space. Its teachers educate 35 students in two converted houses.