Interview with Amy Jaffe Barzach of Boundless Playgrounds

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Boundless Playgrounds is the first national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping communities create extraordinary playgrounds where children, with and without disabilities, can develop essential skills for life as they learn together through play. The following is an interview with Connecting Moms Featured Mom Amy Jaffe Barzach of Boundless Plygrounds.


Q: What was your inspiration in creating Boundless Playgrounds?

A:
Two children are my inspiration for Boundless Playgrounds—a little girl I saw in a wheelchair sadly watching other children play at a playground she couldn’t get to or on and my son, Jonathan, who would have needed a wheelchair if he’d had the chance to grow up. My family imagines that in Jonathan’s dreams, he would have wanted playgrounds to be places where everyone can play, learn, and celebrate life together.


Q: What can families find at Boundless playgrounds that makes it fun and accessible for everyone?

A:
In a Boundless playground, you’ll find that everyone can get to the top. And as my little friend, Hannah, once said, “Everyone can be king or queen of the hill.” It all starts with ramps and bridges that take you up to the highest places and barrier-free surfacing that makes it easy for everyone—elevated play activity panels or raised sand-tables, swings and bouncers with back support, sensory experiences (including music and sound features), and a variety of play components to challenge children of all abilities and support their development.


Q: Tell us about your book Accidental Courage, Boundless Dreams and how the process was writing it.

A:
When we first discovered that something was wrong with our precious son, I went back to keeping a journal. I hadn’t been a devoted journal writer, but at numerous times during my life, I had found that writing in a journal could be very therapeutic. For me, when something was clearly wrong with Jonathan (he couldn’t hold his head up and at times would have trouble breathing), it was a way to wrestle with my fear and my despair.


During Jonathan’s life and painful death, I found solace in my journal. In 1999, Parenting magazine learned about Boundless Playgrounds and did a beautiful story about our family and our dream of inclusive playgrounds within reach of every child. After the article came out, I got calls from writers who said this should be a book. Some even said it should be a movie. But none of them sounded sincere, like they really cared. A short time later, I was at a meeting and was introduced to Sandy Greenberg, a writer who has a daughter with a disability. We clicked from the moment we met.


Then for two years, we met at a local coffee shop every week and I shared my journals with her. She fleshed out my journals into a real book and interviewed not only me but dozens of people who were part of our life. Once we had a first draft, we worked with a professional editor named Nancy Hooper who helped us refine what had been written. It was quite an experience, and I have heard from people that the book has really helped them wrestle with their own challenges. It is available on Boundless Playgrounds web site with a donation.


Q: Has creating such a wonderful organization and co-authoring your book helped you to cope with the loss of your son Jonathan?

A:
Creating a nonprofit that is making a difference in children and families’ lives makes it seem like Jonathan didn’t live and die in vain. Co-authoring a book that has helped other people gives me comfort. And yet, I would like to tell you that dealing with loss by celebrating life makes all the pain go away—it doesn’t. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t miss Jonathan and wish I could have him with me. At the same time, I find that translating grief into something that makes a difference in other people’s lives is the most effective way to cope. It doesn’t have to be big like a playground or starting a nonprofit.


There are still some days, when the grief washes over me, and I am not sure if I can find my way, but I try to remember Jonathan and what I imagine would matter to him, then and now. I’ve been thinking about writing another book titled something like, Finding the Blessings in Your Broken Heart. I think that loss of all kinds in a strange way makes us who we are. If we can find a way to embrace all of the parts of our broken hearts, perhaps we can find our purpose and use that to make our part of the world a better place.


Q: How many children do you have, and what are there ages?

A:
I have four children—Daniel, age 15; Alyssa, age 11; and Michael, age 9. Jonathan would have been 13 on April 1, 2007.


Q: You had Alyssa and Michael after your tragic loss of Jonathan. How did you gain the courage and will to become pregnant again?

A:
This is a really good question. My husband Peter and I were petrified. What Jonathan had was a genetic disease, meaning that any child we had had a twenty-five percent chance of contracting the same disease. We decided that we wouldn’t try to have more children and also that we wouldn’t try not to. Of course, with that plan, we became pregnant right away and in fact, Alyssa was born on January 2, 1996, less than a year after Jonathan’s death on January 5, 1995. Before Michael was born in 1997, we lost another baby when I was four months pregnant. I can’t tell you that it was easy to have more children, the pain of waiting to see if they would be okay took a toll on our family, but thank goodness it all worked out.


Q: Besides being a busy mom and leading your organization, you are also an inspiring speaker. Tell us a little about that.

A:
I am definitely passionate about speaking, which is ironic because I was so shy in high school. In addition to speaking about Boundless Playgrounds, I am passionate about speaking on topics like “Everyone Can Make a Difference,” “Finding Your Passion,” “Building a Boundless Life,” and “Dealing with Loss by Celebrating Life.” The irony is that oftentimes I’m asked to speak to groups as an inspirational speaker, but I always end up being incredibly inspired by the people I meet when supposedly I’m there to inspire them! It still surprises me that I have been invited to speak to groups of people from ten to one thousand people, and the response is always so positive. One day, I would like to do more professional speaking as a way to inspire more people and also to introduce more people to Boundless Playgrounds.


Q: How do you manage to balance work and family?

A:
The challenge for all of us is making sure we are part of this equation. It took me until this year to realize that you have to start by taking care of yourself (that always felt selfish to me). It is like they tell you on the airplane, in case of turbulence, you have to put the breathing mask on yourself first and then help the person next to you. My biggest “aha” of the year is that by taking care of ourselves, we can be more effective at work and at home.


Q: What are some parting thoughts you can share with our mom community?

A:
Never underestimate the power of a passionate mom. I have been so inspired by the mom, Lisa Popovich, and the teacher, Scott Mickey, who teamed up to write the winning essay in the PLAYSKOOL “Win a Boundless Playground Essay Contest.” Their motto as they encouraged their entire school and community to support the contest entry was: “You never know what you can achieve until you try.”


They proved that is really true. The children at their school even wrote a song about how they were dreaming of a Boundless playground. Oftentimes, there is a mom who becomes a champion for a Boundless playground project and convinces others in the community to rally together and make it happen—a mom who realizes that most playgrounds exclude children with disabilities and then decides to make a difference by building an inclusive playground where no one has to be left out. I am so grateful that I continue to meet more and more moms who are making a difference in this important way!


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