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'I know he's looking down' | Dad improving playground for kids of all abilities in honor of late son

Marc Laver is helping add a merry-go-round for kids in wheelchairs, new surface areas around the playground, a sensory music area, new bathrooms and braille signs.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Renovations to Southside Park in Sacramento are underway to make the playground a more inclusive place for kids of all abilities. 

For one parent, it's become his mission after losing his son, Jonnie, to meningitis back in 2019.

"The last three weeks, I’ve been here everyday," said Marc Laver, founder of Jonnie and Friends Reach for the Stars.

Laver and his trusty assistant, Boulder, who was Jonnie's service dog, are keeping tabs on the construction process daily.

16 years ago, Laver pushed his 5-year-old son Jonnie, at the time, in his wheelchair through the same entrance that still stands there today.

"I was inspired almost 20 years ago when our little boy would go to playgrounds and there weren’t a lot of features for him, so I thought that wasn’t right," he said.

That’s when the 'Universal Universe' playground was unveiled with Jonnie front and center. It was a concept new to Sacramento back then with all inclusive play structures, padded surfaces, access ramps and handrails. 

"It was just a great spot to come," Laver said.

But after more than a decade of growing up on this inclusive playground, his son Jonnie passed away from meningitis complications in 2019. 

"And then I just thought, after he passed away, it was just a way for me to reach out to the community and make sure other kids had the opportunity that he had," Laver said.

Noticing the park had fallen into disrepair, Laver approached the city and began fundraising. 

"If I come up with the money and they pay the installation, we would build a merry-go-round for kids like Jonnie that were in wheelchairs," he said.

Nearly $40,000 raised later, the so called 'we-go-round' broke ground on Monday, and the city chipped in too, putting in all new surfacing to cover up the wear and tear. 

Soon, they’ll add a special sensory music area, new bathrooms and braille signage for visually impaired kids. 

“They’re trying to make it more friendly for all children, for all children,” said Michael Saenz, the owner of Saenz Landscape Construction.

Saenz is responsible for doing some of the installation and says Marc’s story of allowing Jonnie’s memory to live on has left a lasting impression. 

"Oh gosh, if we all make effort like Marc and stuff, we could do a lot out here. I think we could do so much more for the parks and communities and for the children. I think we could do a whole bunch more," Saenz said.

While the work may still take a few more weeks, Laver says it’s a job well worth the effort. 

"My little boy, I know would be proud of what we’re doing... I know he’s looking down," Laver said.

Contractors say the we-go-round will be open by Christmas but most of the playground should be open for kids of all abilities by Thanksgiving.

A link to Jonnie and Friends Reach for the Stars fundraising campaign can be found here.

WATCH ALSO: 

'Playground-for-all' will let kids with and without disabilities play side-by-side in Sacramento

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