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Leland Willmott (left) and Marisol Bouthillier (right) ringing the pagoda bell in Sacha's Park in June 2017. (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns).

No child left behind: official opening of Sacha’s Park

Everywhere you turned at Sacha’s Park, you saw a bat symbol.

Sacha Chenier suffered from cerebral palsy, blindness and other cognitive delays. On June 9, 2014, he passed away due to complications from epilepsy.

On Friday, three years later to the day, about 100 people gathered in L’Orignal to honour him by wearing apparel featuring his favourite superhero, and celebrate the opening of a park accessible to children like him. 

Inspiration

In 2010, the family received a trip to Orlando through Make-A-Wish and that’s where they were first introduced to the idea of a “universal playground.”

Jason Chenier, Sacha’s father, said before then they were resigned to having Sacha watch other kids play from the sidelines.

But at this new playground, Matthew’s Boundless Playground, Sacha got to play with other kids and Sebastien, his older brother, pushed him on the swings for the first time.

When Sacha passed away, the playground remained one of the family’s fondest memories and they decided to replicate it near home.

While kids have been allowed to play in the park since last fall, the official opening came exactly three years after Sacha Chénier passed away. From left to right: Champlain mayor Gary Barton, Jacquelyn Standing, Sébastien Chénier, and Jason Chénier. (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns).

The family bought a corner lot in L’Orignal’s Place La Seigneurie for $75,000 and donated it to the municipality to build the new park.

Through various fundraisers, a GoFundMe page—which reached nearly $360,000—and corporate donations, the park came to life late last year. 

Chenier highlighted the community’s help in making the project a success during his speech on Friday morning.

The Review asked his parents why they decided on a park rather than donating to research or other organizations.

“Sacha was so much about joy,” said Jacquelyn Standing, Sacha’s mother. “And I’m not sure all the medical research in the world could or should have ‘fixed’ my son, but he sure deserved a place to play.”

“I think those are worthwhile donations too, but the park was something we felt had Sacha been here he would’ve benefited from directly,” said this dad. “It’s something I feel there’s a huge need for… it shouldn’t be an exception, but something that exists everywhere.”

It’s also something the community could rally behind, he added, and “see where your efforts went to is really fulfilling.”

Park amenities

“If you design something with the least able-bodied person in mind, then you can’t go wrong,” said Standing.

That’s exactly what they did for Sacha’s Park.

A roller slide, instead of a plastic one—which can cause a short in cochlear implants, said Standing—a ramp leading to to a platform that mimics the rocking of a boat, and elevated sandboxes are only some of the park’s different toys.

None of them would be accessible without the right surface—something Chénier’s parents said was an integral part of the park. Processed recycled tires make up a spongy surface that allows people with mobility issues can get to the equipment.

… Na, na, na, na BATMAN!

When Sacha was three, and Sebastien five or six, the family was strolling through a Toys “R” Us when Sebastien came running up to his parents with a batman belt, nearly pleading them to buy it.

This was unusual for him – according to his dad, his favourite superhero had always been Spider-Man.

“No, no, we gotta get it for Sacha,” said Sebastien. “His favourite superhero is batman.” 

A little confused, his parents asked him how he knew that. “Sacha told me,” said Sebastien matter-of-factly. 

“Let’s go with it; I love this idea,” said Chenier, reminiscing about the event. “It gave Sacha more personality.”

So, they bought the belt and kicked off a lifelong link to Batman. From t-shirts and backpacks to even redecorating Sacha’s room and meeting the superhero at amusements parks, “you name it, Sacha did it,” said Chénier.

Many were clad in Batman apparel to honour Sacha. (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns).

Towards the end of his life, Sacha’s medical issues led to more and more appointments at CHEO. After what ended up being his last trip to the hospital, “we were heading out to the parking lot and there goes a golf cart, bright blue with a big bat symbol on the front, fully dressed Batman driving his Batcart,” said Chénier.

Of course, they needed to stop Batman.

He and Sacha took a picture together; Batman leaning on Sacha’s chair, both with wide grins.

“We didn’t think much of it,” said Chénier.

Three days later, Sacha passed away.

When preparing for the funeral service, the family was going through pictures to create a collage.

“Going through my phone, all of a sudden it took my breath away,” said Chénier. “I realized the very last picture we ever have of our son was with Batman.”

With the recent passing of the original Batman, Adam West, maybe Sacha will truly get to meet his favourite superhero.

Winks to Sacha

The Batman connection shaped the creation of the park. Sacha’s parents immediately knew what colours they wanted: Batman’s classic blue and yellow.

The colours are only one of a few “winks” to Sacha hidden in plain sight. There’s also a bat symbol on one of the swings, and the pagoda bells are “the closest sound to what would have made Sacha laugh,” said Standing.

The family is also hoping to build a splash pad with a baby beluga theme, inspired by the Raffi song, which Standing says she must have sang to Sacha a moderate “85,000 times,” she jokes.

Now with the project nearly completed, Standing says she looks forward to just enjoying the park and remembering Sacha.

“I can think of no more fitting memorial for my son than a place of fun and joy.”

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