Fundraising for VBISD Learning Center playground tops $200,000 in donations

By Paul Garrod
	Among recent donations to a fund set up to purchase new playground equipment for the Van Buren Intermediate School District’s Bert Goens Learning Center in Lawrence was the Michigan Masonic Charitable Foundation’s contribution of $12,000.Phil Kenreich, left, a member of the Albemarle Foun-dation Donation Committee, presents a check for $6,000 to VBISD Superintendent Jeff Mills to help fund the purchase of playground equipment for the VBISD Bert Goens Learning Center.Maria Diaz, second from left, assistant vice president of Chemical Bank, Paw Paw, presents a check for $5,000 to Deb Kollar, co-chair of the Bert Goens Learning Center Playground Project. Susan Reynolds, Bert Goens Learning Center principal, left, and Jeff Mills, VBISD superintendent, right, attended the presentation.Entergy-Palisades Power Plant donated $10,000, to the playground fund. From left, are Nick Culp, Government Affairs, Entergy - Palisades Power Plant; Sally Boothby, specialized assistant, VBISD; Charlie Arnone, site vice president, Entergy - Palisades Power Plant; Deb Kollar, Social Worker, VBISD; and Jeff Mills, superintendent, VBISD.

    LAWRENCE - Recent donations from four area businesses and organizations have added  $33,000 to a fund set up to purchase new playground equipment for the Van Buren Intermediate School District’s Bert Goens Learning Center in Lawrence.
    The playground will be  named in memory of the Center’s former principal, Janice DiGiovanni, who began the fundraising efforts for the new playground, but has since died of cancer.
    The additional funds are from  Michigan Masonic Charitable Foundation ($12,000), Entergy-Palisades Power Plant  ($10,000), Albemarle Foundation ($6,000) and Chemical Bank ($5,000). The Michigan Economic Development Corporation has also accepted the  project for a $50,000 matching grant challenge. The MEDC will  match up to $50,000 raised  by Aug. 1.
    With the donations from these organizations and smaller contributions from many individuals and other businesses, the VBISD has now raised over $50,000, which will allow the MEDC matching grant to take effect.  Combining this $100,000 in new funds raised to the past 15 months of fundraising efforts, the current playground fund now totals over $200,000.  
    “It is wonderful to see so many organizations, companies, and individuals come together to donate time and money for this very special project,” said Deb Kollar, a VBISD social worker, who now chairs the committee to see that DiGiovanni’s dream is fulfilled.
    DiGiovanni was diagnosed in May of 2016 with glioblastoma stage 4 - an aggressive form of brain cancer. For 11 months, she spearheaded  her efforts to see that funds were raised to not only renovate an existing playground, but purchase new equipment to meet the needs of the children at the Learning Center,  and a larger area with  special surfacing so students in wheelchairs will have easier access to the new equipment, according to  Kollar.
    In an interview prior to her death, DiGiovanni said of the proposed 3,500-square-foot area, “This is such an important project to me because in addition to their love of and need for outdoor play and exercise, our students have a range of the most serious physical and cognitive disabilities. Our students will greatly benefit from the new playground equipment and repair of existing equipment.”
    DiGiovanni died April 14.
    Last Saturday, July 22, at Homer Stryker Field in Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Growlers took part in the fundraising, donating a portion of the ticket proceeds to the playground project.
    During the second inning of the game, the Growlers held “The Miracle Minute,” during  which plastic buckets were passed around to the sell-out crowd to raise additional funds for the playground.
    Kollar said VBISD staff passed around 100 buckets and collected $1,098.50 during the 60 seconds. The combined total for the night in ticket sales ($847) and “The Miracle Minute” was $1,945.50.
    “It was really heart-warming to see how generous fans were toward our BGLC Playground Project when they had just learned about it that night at the game,” said Kollar of the added fundraiser.
    DiGiovanni’s children, Paul, David and Anne, each threw out the ceremonial first ball to three different catchers.
    The national anthem was sung by VBISD Bert Goens Learning Center student Alex Tate. “Alex did a wonderful job as he always does,” said Kollar.
    The playground equipment will be designed and built through Sinclair Recreation, a Holland, MI-based representative agency of GameTime. Sinclair Recreation specializes in Community Build Installations,  including over 30 with Carter’s Kids across the country. Carter’s  Kids is the foundation of Carter Oosterhouse, host of HGTV’s “Carter Can” and “Red Hot and Green” and ABC’s The Great Christmas Light Fight.
    The BGLC Playground Project was selected to partner with Carter’s  Kids,  which will dramatically  decrease the cost of installation by utilizing volunteers during the Community Build.     Kollar said that Janice’s Playground, named for the late administrator, will begin construction Aug. 17 - 19, following the demolition of the current playground structure  on Aug. 10 and 11.
    A ribbon cutting is tentatively planned for the week of Sept. 11, which Oosterhouse will attend. “It is wonderful to see so many organizations, companies, and individuals come together to donate to this very special project,” said Susan Reynolds, principal at Bert Goens Learning Center.
    Jeff Mills, VBISD superintendent  said, “The power of networking to others is so amazing. You tell the story to a few people you know, and in turn, they share with others,  and before long, donations start coming in. Hats off to the efforts of so many people in making the dream that Ms. DiGiovanni had, come true”
    For more information, to make a donation, or to volunteer, contact Kollar at or (269) 539-5045.

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