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SMILE Mass brings floating beach wheelchairs to Cape Cod

Floating Beach Wheelchair donated by SMILE Mass
Floating Beach Wheelchair donated by SMILE Mass

Small Miracles in Life Exist

Often defined as a “powerful emotion” or “possessing a bound-less enthusiasm,” passion is an admirable trait, and, without a doubt, Sudbury resident Lotte Diomede is full of passion. This is especially true when it comes to SMILE Mass, the non-profit she co-founded in 2009 with longtime friend and fellow Sudbury resident Susan Brown.

Lotte and Susan’s friendship began several years ago when they met at the Longfellow Club in Wayland. Both families are raising a child with disabilities, along with a younger sibling in Lotte’s family and an older child and a younger set of twins in Susan’s family.

Raising a child is no easy task, and the challenges encountered while navigating the path of rearing a child with disabilities is something that immediately drew these two kind souls together. “Meeting someone else who understood not only daily life with a special needs child, but also the importance of doing typical summer activities with your other children that everyone else takes for granted was nice. I think that parents of special needs children are drawn to each other because they have so much in common.

Lotte is a woman not deterred by much, and, while at a local playground back in 2008 with her children, Nicholas and Annabelle, she was bothered by the fact that there was not a single swing in Sudbury or surrounding communities that Nicholas could safely use and enjoy, given his physical restrictions. It didn’t seem fair, so Lotte took it upon herself to contact Sudbury’s Parks and Recreation office to inquire if they would be willing to install an accessible swing that could be made available to any child who was unable to use the dozens of standard swings around town. She was more than willing to pay for the swing out of her own pocket to allow her son the opportunity to enjoy the wonderful benefits of a playground like any other child his age.

Lotte met with Sudbury’s former Parks and Recreation Director, Dennis Mannone, and, to her surprise, there was an immediate opportunity to write a grant for a fully accessible playground. Ohio-based Little Tikes Company recently received a private donation in the amount of $125,000 that specified the creation of an accessible playground. The only requirement was that that the playground be built within a Boston Metrowest community and offer all people, regardless of physical or mental abilities, the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a community playground.

Lotte was thrilled with the news and shortly afterwards began the arduous process of writing the grant with Dennis. Fortunately, the Parks and Recreation Department took on the bulk of the tedious project, and Lotte fulfilled the emotional and very personal portion of the application. The grant would cover approximately half of the building costs, so there was a need for additional funds to be raised to cover the remaining costs. She contacted Susan asking if she would help with the solicitation of donations, and she was eagerly up for the challenge. Within days great progress had been made, and SMILE Sudbury was born. They worked tirelessly along with a handful of other invaluable supporters, and by the fall of 2009, Sudbury’s Haskell Playground housed a brand new universal design playground with accessible play structures for all, with plenty of room for wheelchair maneuverability.

SMILE Sudbury was the name the duo came up with after meeting with preschoolers and asking the youngsters how they felt while playing at a playground. “It makes me smile” or “I smile a lot” were common reactions. Coupled with the desire to give it a local connection, SMILE Sudbury was the ideal name. The uniqueness was taken once step further when Lotte came up with the fitting acronym for  SMILE Sudbury “Small Miracles in Life Exist.”

The success of the playground and numerous heartfelt letters of gratitude received were instrumental in motivating the team to expand their geographic reach and broaden their philanthropic mission further. The name SMILE Sudbury seemed geographically limiting, so in 2010 the name was changed to SMILE Mass. Shortly afterwards, SMILE Mass was awarded accreditation as a Massachusetts-based non-profit.

Both Lotte and Susan love family travel, but they were often deterred due to the lack of accessible accommodations at vacation destination hotels and resorts. Many accommodations offer an accessible room or two, but that often denotes a room with wheelchair accessibility and nothing else. More extensive upgrades such as full-bath accessibility and larger rooms are needed to accommodate a family traveling with a special needs person. Given the occupancy limitations, additional rooms can increase the lodging costs drastically, which can easily make an accessible vacation unaffordable.

Fortunately, Lotte owns a vacation home in South Yarmouth and has modified it to make it a comfortable retreat for her family. It is fully accessible for Nicholas and is stocked with all of the necessary equipment and supplies, but that comfort ends once you leave the house. Routine and pleasurable activities were either extremely challenging or unmanageable.

Vacationing on Cape Cod is not complete without a visit to one of the many beaches sprinkled along the scenic miles of coastline. The majority of surf beach wheelchairs are able to get down to the water’s edge, but that is it where the beach experience abruptly ends. How frustrating it must be on a hot day to get that close to the water and not be rewarded with a cool dip.

With the success of the accessible playground already under her belt, Lotte established a relationship with a company that manufactures amphibious rolling beach wheelchairs that transition from the boardwalk to the beach to the water in a smooth and effortless process. Now SMILE Mass had a new venture ahead of them: Raise funds and donate chairs to the public beaches of Cape Cod. This will make life a whole lot easier for vacationing families with a disabled family member.

Thanks to SMILE Mass, there are 40 floating beach wheelchairs already housed on 34 Cape Cod beaches readily available for use, free of charge. “The donation of the beach wheelchairs from SMILE Mass has enhanced the quality of life for numerous visitors and residents, allowing entire families to share recreational opportunities together,” commented Patti Machado, director of leisure services for Barnstable. The chairs have become so popular that SMILE Mass’s Sudbury office has 4 beach wheelchairs available for loan on a daily or weekly basis. Hundreds of beach goers have enjoyed the chairs, and nothing makes Lotte and Susan happier than the gratitude they often receive.

As with many other charitable organizations, raising funds is the key to survival: SMILE Mass is no different. To reach their goal of 100 beach wheelchairs located on beaches throughout Cape Cod and the Islands.

Future plans for SMILE Mass include a fully accessible vacation home where families can retreat and enjoy sacred family time without worrying about accessibility and exorbitant costs. To learn more about SMILE Mass or sponsor any of their fundraiser events please visit www.smilemass.org.

The current fundraiser for SMILE Mass is the 200 mile Ragnar Relay Run from Hull, MA to Provincetown, MA.  To make a personal or corporate donation to one of the race teams, please visit http://www.crowdrise.com/SMILEMassRelay

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