By Kim Siebert MacPhail
“Never underestimate what a group of five, really bright, goal-oriented women can achieve,” said honoree Judy Mirel as she signed her name on a rock before a crowd of about 60 well-wishers at the PlayZone dedication ceremony on Wednesday afternoon, October 24.
The five women Mirel referred to—Ann Guay, Susan Appelbaum, Linda Willson, Melinda Macht-Greenberg, and Ilsa Gottlieb, a colleague of Mirel’s for 35 years—were the determined force behind fundraising efforts to make Mirel’s dream of an outdoor classroom at Bedford’s Integrated Preschool a reality. Gottlieb, now retired from teaching, is a former co-president of the Bedford Education Foundation (BEF) and remains on the board today. It was the BEF that Mirel initially applied to for a $50,000 grant to build the PlayZone in her final year at Bedford Public Schools.
“We had to turn her down,” said Gottlieb. “Judy didn’t realize that altogether we raise about $25,000 a year. We thought it was a good idea; we just didn’t have the money, but she planted a seed. . . .”
While the BEF couldn’t support the entire request, it was able to provide grant money for some elements of the project. To raise the full amount needed, Gottlieb, Macht-Greenberg, Willson, Appelbaum, and Guay formed a separate group and dedicated themselves to realizing Mirel’s vision. Gottlieb said, “I knew Judy’s colleagues and the families of Bedford that she had served would want to do something appropriate [to honor Judy upon her retirement] and there was nothing— like a watch— that would be appropriate.”
“In the thirty years I worked with Judy,” Gottlieb continued,“ she always created a place for children, families, and colleagues where all of us could be accepted, validated, supported—and perhaps most importantly, respected. Her willingness to go above and beyond for the children and their families served to inspire all the teachers who she touched. We were better for her presence.”
At the dedication, Bedford parent Ann Guay spoke of being both touched and supported by Mirel’s ceaseless care, not only to Guay and her son Brian but to the rest of the family.
“I was invited to speak today on behalf of parents of children with special needs,” said Guay. “It’s a task I’m happy to do. . . .Until I had my son Brian, I would look at mothers with children with special needs and I would think two things: ‘One—I don’t know how they do it. And two—I’m so glad I don’t have to.’ I went on my merry way and thought that would never be me. . . After Brian’s diagnosis, Judy was the only person who taught me how to put one foot in front of the other and figure out what to do next. She didn’t downplay the severity of the diagnosis and she didn’t tell me that everything would be fine. But she did assure me that we could work together and figure out how to help Brian reach his full potential. Most importantly, she reminded me that Brian was still my son and not his diagnosis.”
The Integrated Preschool, where the PlayZone was built, is housed at Bedford High School. It started with one classroom of 20 children and now includes four classrooms of 30 children each—15 special needs and 15 regular education students. Before the expansion of the Integrated Preschool, many students who were identified through early intervention as needing special education services would have been sent to outside programs.
In recent years, Bedford has made a concerted effort to provide in-house programs to accommodate these learners, head teacher of the Integrated Preschool program Jayme Szymczak said.“Judy is always thinking of others, of how to make things different and better for everybody else,” said Szymczak. “From that passion came from a vision for how to provide a quality education within the town of Bedford for Bedford’s youngest students. . . .
“Judy had a vision and a dream, and it became reality under her stewardship and the collaborative effort between the high school’s Occupational Education department and the Special Education department. The High School Nursery School program [was] transformed into an Integrated Preschool classroom. . . .Judy was thinking of others and how parents would want their children to learn with their peers in the community that they lived in. Her heart and soul were poured into this preschool program.”
Gottlieb said that it was, indeed, one of the goals of the project was to complete Judy’s vision for the Integrated Preschool by building the PlayZone. But for the committee— and for many of the people and groups who contributed to the project— an equally important goal was creating a place where Mirel’s life’s work could go on.
Naming a variety of individuals, town departments, and organizations that pulled together to make the PlayZone a reality, Gottlieb said, the project was a true testament to the power that can be harnessed by a community coming together. “Groups as diverse as Bedford Public Works, the town’s Facilities Department, the Bedford Public Schools, the Rotary Club, Sema Arakelian’s 2nd-grade class, Girl Scout troop #77208 and New England Nursery. J.D. Doud, Robbie Bridgeman, Joel Choquette, and Alan Young. Kevin Latady and John Russo, who sat with us for months [as we worked through how to do this]. Jeff Wardwell [even] taught me how to drive a Bobcat.”
Mirel commented after the dedication that the PlayZone was a dream that has come true. “We talked about 400 ways how to do this. The fact that the community came together is amazing. And the kids just love it!”
“Now,” Mirel joked, “it’s our goal to turn the whole high school into an early childhood preschool.”
Editor’s Note: Read more about PlayZone’s construction