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Alumna works to build new playground

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Amanda Nieto
Arts Editor

The bell rings to signal the start of recess. Classrooms of excited students rush out onto the playground for a time of carefree play; however, for the students at Danbury Elementary their playground is lacking.

Danbury Elementary is a special education school in Claremont that teaches about 70 students ranging from preschool to 6th grade who have physical disabilities or health impairments.

Danbury is partnered with the neighboring school, Sumner Elementary, to form a combination elementary school that focuses on enriched learning in a diverse environment. The concept behind the partnership is for students to interact with others who are different from themselves.

Vanessa Ocana, student-counselor at Danbury and alumna from the University of La Verne, has made it her goal to help the students grow in all aspects of their lives, which includes helping to raise money for a new handicap-accessible playground.

“I remember when I was in school I didn’t have a playground to play … because I was the only person with a disability,” Ocana said. “But there’s like 63 kids with physical disabilities (at Danbury) and they don’t even have a proper playground.”

Ocana has mild cerebral palsy, and hopes that through raising money for a new playground her students will see that they can make a difference regardless of their disability.

Arny Bloom, former principal at Danbury Elementary from 1986 to 2002, was the first to suggest a new and improved handicap accessible playground.

In the summer of 2011 the school entered a nation-wide contest to win money for a new playground; however, after a two-page essay that earned them a spot in the finals, they did not win.

The push for a new playground gradually settled down, until Ocana came to the school in October 2010 and was later asked to lead the Road to Discovery model project.

“The purpose of the project is to discover what you can do despite your limitations,” Ocana said.

Road to Discovery features three support groups that go through different goals each month. The first month focused on hope and the second had the theme of empowerment, which is where talk about a new playground reemerged.

“I wanted to put what they were learning into practice,” Ocana said. “So we’re learning empowerment through raising money for the handicap accessible playground.”

Bloom said that the current playground is not only outdated but was put together with mistakes.

“It’s important to have equipment that works for them and is something they can enjoy,” Bloom said.

Expanding the playground and incorporating more ramps are just a few changes that would be made. Ideas for new equipment include a wheelchair-accessible swing and puzzles for those with learning impairments.

Bloom said that a pre-design is also a very important factor in the construction of the playground.

Ocana said she hopes to raise the $200,000 for the playground in nine months; however, it may take anywhere up to two years.

“I’m willing to be on the project as long as it takes,” Ocana said. “Just as long as the kids stay interested; that motivates me.”

Josh Della-Rocco, an intern and student-counselor at Danbury, said that the purpose of Sumner-Danbury is to integrate students with disabilities and those without, and the playground may help with that mission.

“With the way everyone treats everyone here, it’s very homey,” Della-Rocco said. “I think that with the playground it will just be another opportunity for the kids to be interacting and taking part in each other’s lives.”

Some people in the community are not even aware of the lack in playground resources.

“As a community member I didn’t know that we didn’t have this kind of facility or some kind of facilitation for handicap in the parks,” Cynthia Guerra, a social work intern from Vista Elementary, said. “Once Vanessa brought it to light it just brought another idea of what is needed in the communities.”

Guerra said that after doing some research she found that many areas do not have handicap accessible playgrounds and that building one at Danbury would benefit surrounding communities.

Ocana said she hopes that the playground will bring awareness to those in the community who do not think about the needs of the disabled citizens.

“I’m doing this because I want to tell (the students) that they do have a voice. They said they want a playground, and I feel if people participate they’re showing the kids that they have a voice,” Ocana said.

Yesenia Lopez, an intern from Cal State San Bernardino, said that they wanted to start an activity that would empower the children so they decided to find ways of getting the students involved.

“I’m hoping that this whole playground thing motivates everyone in the support groups to do something bigger and better for themselves,” Ocana said.

Ocana is fundraising coordinator for the handicap accessible playground project and said that all of the ideas were either student suggestions or include a way for students to help.

The fundraising began in February and since then has expanded to different ideas and gained supporters. $345 has been raised in 21 days.

“Even though the school is small I think (…) I can use my networking skills and get people involved,” Ocana said.

These networks include using Greek life connections from the University as well as clubs and organizations that Ocana was a member of when she was a student.

Della-Rocco suggested fundraising bracelets that are popular among organizations such as the Lance Armstrong ‘livestrong’ wristband. The goal is to get the students involved in the fundraising as much as possible, so they are voting on what color they want the wristbands.

Future fundraising events include the Road to Discovery Fundraising Boutique that will take place from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. April 14 at 10730 Church St. in Rancho Cucamonga where vendors will sell their products and 10 percent of the profits will go to the project. Ocana is also looking into having the students auction their artwork at the boutique.

Café Cabo located on D Street will also participate in the fundraising from March 18 to the 25 by donating 20 percent when any customer brings a flyer or mentions the project. Panda Express located on Foothill will likewise donate to the project on March 29 for all those who bring in a flyer.

Michelle Crede, Ocana’s supervisor, said that Ocana is serving as a role model for the students.

“They see her going forward and taking on the wonderful new challenges, and so it gives them kind of empowerment on the basis of interacting,” Crede said.

“I do what I do, because I want to be a positive thing, Ocana said. “A lot of the time when you look at a disability people focus on the negative,” Ocana said. “I want the kids to see it can be a positive thing.”

For more information call 909-576-8454 or email

Online donations can also be made to

Amanda Nieto can be reached at

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