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Born Learning Trail debuts in the Chad Erickson Memorial Park

Source: La Crosse Tribune

By Emily Pyrek

June 15, 2017

Sophie Lichtie moved her finger across the metal sign in front of her, reciting each letter as she touched it.

“S-Q-U-I-R-R-E-L — squirrel,” she read with pride.

Like many of her peers, 5-year-old Sophie is just beginning to read, and her vision impairment adds another layer to the process. Blind since birth and diagnosed as autistic, Sophie faces many challenges in her everyday life, but with the new adaptive Born Learning Trail in the Chad Erickson Memorial Park, a trip to the playground can be focused on fun.

The Chad Erickson Memorial Park, which opened on June 14, 2014, was developed in honor of its namesake, who died in 1995 at age 15, six years after a complication during open heart surgery left him with brain damage and restricted to a wheelchair. On Wednesday, three years later to the day, the Born Learning Trail debuted to the public, with a ribbon cutting by Chad’s parents, Dave and Barb, and family.

“We started out knowing we wanted to make the park accessible,” Barb said of the location, a 22-acre stretch of land that is now equipped with a bridge, fishing docks and specialized playground equipment. “I didn’t realize how important it would be to so many people. It’s amazing how many people care about the park and are taking ownership of it.”

The park is the second in La Crosse to incorporate a Born Learning Trail, a project created by the United Way, and the first to make it adaptive. The trail kits, which are installed in parks across the country, come with 10 interactive signs that offer educational and bonding activities for children, families and caregivers. With the help of Great Rivers United Way, the RSM US LLP Foundation, Pat Stephens and UW-La Crosse, the Erickson’s were able to make the park even more inclusive, with “Chad’s Challenge” signs providing alternative versions to the standard activities.

UW-L therapeutic recreation students and their professor, Patricia Ardovino, worked weekly on adjusting the content on each sign and adding picture communication symbols, a visual language often used by those with cognitive disabilities or speech delays.

“Some of the signs might ask them to tell a story — the pictures can inspire the kiddos and help them tell that story,” explained Adrianne Olson, marketing and communications specialist for Great Rivers United Way and the project’s manager. “We really tried to make things even more adaptive than just for physical mobility. The scope of the project and how inclusive it is grew beyond what I could have imagined.”

Martha Tymeson, recently retired from the La Crosse School District after 25 years, was instrumental in the project, an endeavor near to her heart as a former adaptive physical education teacher who had the honor of teaching Chad her first year and Sophie during her last.

“Sophie was the inspiration,” Tymeson said of adding braille to the signage. “My favorite thing was how simple it was to tweak the project to open it up, and seeing families have a new way to utilize a park and be outside and develop those early learning skills. It’s been rewarding seeing it come to fruition. Everyone is so dedicated.”

The dedication is not lost on Becca Lichtie, Sophie’s mother, who appreciates the opportunity to learn beside her daughter.

“I think it’s really cool you can sit and practice with her, and it helps me because I haven’t learned (braille) yet,” Lichtie said. “I’m just glad Martha wanted us to be a part of this and that they thought of Sophie with the braille is really sweet.”

For Barb, seeing a new generation enjoy the park her son so loved is endlessly rewarding, and she imagines he would be proud of what it has become.

“He was an outside boy,” Barb said. “So this would be right up his alley.”