By Cheryl A. Cuddahy
Sam Pawlak’s life was dedicated to community and family and he had a lifelong commitment to education and sports.
He taught at Nashoba Regional High School and later became the principal and an administrator for the district, and served on the Fitchburg School Committee.
After his retirement, Sam began a new career in education, working with special-needs students at Oakmont Regional High School.
He was a regular volunteer at Boston Children’s Hospital and enjoyed working with children and families in need of care.
Sam passed away on May 12, 2015, after a long and courageous battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and his family thought it only fitting to honor his life in a way that would help others, especially children.
The Sam Pawlak Community Playground was the idea of two of his former students at Nashoba Regional, Judy Jollimore and Beth LeBlanc, who are both special-education employees for Fitchburg Public Schools.
“They had always had tremendous respect for Sam and the values that exemplified his interactions with every student he met,” says Donna Pawlak, Sam’s daughter-in-law, who is married to Sam’s oldest son, Michael, and is a board member for the park. “Sam was amazing as a principal, teacher and one-on-one educator with special-needs children.”
Recognizing that the community’s existing playgrounds lacked specialized equipment for a special set of children, Judy and Beth -- along with Sam’s family -- combined their desire to keep Sam’s memory alive with that need for a non-traditional playground.
Donna says the playground, which will be built at Coolidge Park, is in its beginning stages and will have playground equipment that will be wheelchair-accessible and allow for easy transfer.
“It will also include a variety of sensory experiences for those children with intellectual impairment, autism and visual limitations,” she says. “When complete, the new playground will emphasize providing an experience for children who are traditionally not able to interact in a typical playground.”
To help raise money for the playground, the Fitchburg Knights of Columbus and the Sam Pawlak Community Playground Committee are hosting a Spaghetti Dinner and Comedy Show on Friday, Jan. 25, at 165 Electric Ave.
Dinner will be served at 6:30 p.m., with spaghetti, meatballs, salad, bread and butter. Tickets are $7. After dinner comes the laughs -- a comedy show hosted by Jerry Caruso, co-founder of Comics for a Cure -- starting at 8 p.m. Jerry will be joined by comedian Bill Campbell. Tickets are $20.
The evening will also feature many raffle baskets and 50/50 raffles to add to the fundraising aspect.
“The Fitchburg Knights of Columbus is dedicated to working with community charities and are especially dedicated to working with children in our community who have physical challenges,” Donna says. “My dad Sonny was a longtime member of the organization, and the Pawlak family has maintained close ties with its members, so it is especially meaningful to both families to have their help.”
Donations of gift certificates and gift baskets are being accepted and are appreciated. For more information, please call Cheryl Cucchiara at the Fitchburg Knights of Columbus, 978-855-1712.
“There is no playground like this in Northern Worcester County for families to take their children to,” Donna says. “This playground is unique in that it will be alongside a more traditional playground so that families can take all of their children to enjoy playing together.”
Laughing is good for your health, spaghetti makes just about everything better, and attending this event on Friday, Jan. 25, promises to bring this special playground one step closer to the children who need it most.
“Think of the shared experiences of most people, of the wind blowing through your hair as you enjoy the swing set,” Donna says. “Imagine the excitement and faces of the children in wheelchairs who are going to enjoy and celebrate this most basic of childhood experiences for the first time at the Sam Pawlak Community Playground in Fitchburg. It’s a day that can’t come too soon!”
Tickets are on sale now at the Knights of Columbus or at the door. If you cannot make the event but would like to donate to the Sam Pawlak Community Playground, go to www.cfncm.org or mail a check made payable to the Sam Pawlak Community Playground to Community Foundation of Central Massachusetts, 649 John Fitch Highway, Fitchburg, MA 01420.
Got a column subject or item for Community Conversations? Email ccuddahy @sentinelandenterprise. Read her blog at blogs.sentinel andenterprise.com/ communityconversations.