Wanna play? From Special Olympics to inclusive park, Fort Mill children play together

They weren't waving goodbye. It was a silent sendoff.

These children spend way too much time together for long goodbyes.

On Friday morning, all 700 or so students at Riverview Elementary School gathered to send off Special Olympics athletes and their families. Riverview has about 40 participants. The area Special Olympics games kicking off Friday in Rock Hill bring more than 1,000 athletes from York and Chester counties.

Part of the sendoff was a celebration of the athletes. Fifth-grader Luke Mantel, who doesn't have his own special needs but is part of a school program pairing him and others with students who do, said they deserve it. His buddy is Blake.

"It's a chance for them to like, be like, on the news and have like a lot of appreciation for what they're doing," Mantel said.

The other part of Friday's event hits closer to home. While people may hear Olympics and rightly think of athletes worldwide, there's a continued effort to bring an all-inclusive playground to Fort Mill so people of all abilities can play together.

A week of diversity lessons and events at Riverview culminate in a school-wide family event Saturday with a 5K, food trucks, cultural booths and raising money for All Play Together, the group bringing the new playground.

All Play Together has an agreement with the town of Fort Mill, which donated land at the 25-acre park at Waterside on the Catawba River. The town plans baseball fields and more there. All Play Together still has to raise about $500,000 to make the all-inclusive park happen.

The all-inclusive park will be designed to allow easy access for anyone, including people using wheelchairs, walkers, braces or who generally aren't sturdy on their feet.

Shannon Moree, a group member who also works with students at Riverview, said the all-inclusive park is about 40 percent funded. There isn't a set date for when it will open. In ways, Moree said, it's good her group has to wait on larger town plans for the overall park. It gives them time to hit their goal.

"Hopefully, it'll be within a year or two," she said. "Hopefully not two."

Families will be ready for the park as soon as it opens.

Matt Lochel, who volunteered with the Riverview event Friday, has a 3-year-old son with "profound special needs" and a 5-year-old daughter without them. Lochel enjoys having his children play together at the nearest all-inclusive playground he's found — in Myrtle Beach.

"He's not always able to play with his sister," Lochel said of his children.

Both go to Riverview, where Lochel's son receives needed services. Just as Riverview students proved Friday they can go to school and cheer one another on and support one another regardless of ability level, the next step is having somewhere in town to play.

"The all-inclusive playground would allow both my kids to play together in a safe environment," Lochel said.

While the new park isn't just for children with special needs — older adults or others with limited mobility will have the same improved access features as children in wheelchair or with walkers — there has been a strong connection with local schools and the park to raise money.

The Riverview event follows a winter program at Fort Mill Elementary School where a "girl-powered" technology event was designed almost entirely around the park and what it would take to have it in Fort Mill. Gold Hill Elementary, Springfield Middle, Nation Ford High and other schools have donated or raised money.

Last month, Fort Mill High School raised more than $8,000 for All Play Together in a 5-minute challenge organized by administrators, staff and the school's Equality Club. The event ended up with administrators having their hair dyed blue.

Laura Vaughn, diversity chair at Riverview, said the week of programs there are part of an overall education for all students. Whether it's sending off Special Olympics athletes or working on a new playground, she's encouraged to see her students and school family doing it together.

"It focuses on inclusion and celebrating our differences," she said.

For more on All Play Together, including fundraising options, visit allplaytogether.com.