Playground for vision-impaired children in Colonie will honor first-grader – Times Union

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Sarah Norton, one of Charlie’s teachers at Saddlewood Elementary school, talks about Charlie Fernandez during an event at the school on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Colonie, N.Y. It was announced on Wednesday that an additional playground will be constructed at the school and called Charlie’s Playground in honor of Charlie Fernandez who died in April of 2021. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)
COLONIE – A little girl who learned to climb a slide despite being blind will be memorialized with a playground that can be used by vision-impaired children.
Charlie Fernandez was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a pediatric cancer, just days after starting kindergarten in 2018. She lost her eyesight in January 2020, due to a tumor pressing on her optic nerve, and died in April 2021 at the age of 7.
The playground at Saddlewood Elementary, her South Colonie school, was spread out along a narrow stretch of grass, with no fence to help guide students from the slide to the swings. The top of the slide had no delineation to let a blind student know they’d reached the end.
This did not stop Charlie from having the time of her life there during recess.
Where Angels Play will now build a fully accessible playground at Saddlewood Elementary in honor of her playful spirit. The foundation is fundraising for the effort and will build it next summer.
“Her favorite thing was to go on the playground,” said Jim Plourde of Where Angels Play. “She smiled, she laughed and she loved.”
Charlie’s mom had a secret dream of building an accessible playground. But she never thought it would happen, she said at Wednesday’s announcement.
“I want a playground that can be used by blind children. When we looked around, there was nothing,” Danielle Fernandez said. “In New York City, on treatment days, we would go to the playground there and she absolutely loved it.”
Small adaptations are all that’s needed: a fence, a gate at the top of a slide to warn the child that they’ve reached the top, and touch-amenities like a sandbox.
“Maybe steps and tall handrails” instead of a ladder to the slide, Fernandez said. “The world can be a scary place if you close your eyes … I don’t know how she did it.”
At first, Charlie was afraid to go home from the hospital because she couldn’t see. But that didn’t stop her long.
“She wanted to go on the slide,” teacher Sarah Norton recounted of a day when Charlie returned to school after treatment. “So myself and one of the aides, I was behind her, there were people at the bottom, we got her up there – and she came down with the biggest smile.”
The other children clustered around her, Norton recalled. It was a big deal.
“She wanted to be outside. She wanted to play,” she said.
There are no vision-impaired students at the school right now, but there are three classrooms led by special education teachers, and many children who could benefit from various adaptations to the playground, she said.
“And you never know who’s going to come in September,” she said.
Kathleen grew up in Glenville and now lives in Schenectady. She has covered the Capital Region for various newspapers since 2000, focusing on the interesting people who breathe life into their towns, villages and cities. She is the Times Union’s education reporter. You can reach her at [email protected] or 518-918-5497.


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