Archived Story

Cincinnati area playground has tie to Albert Lea

Published 10:32am Friday, August 23, 2013

A playground at a school in the Cincinnati area was dedicated Monday in the memory of the late daughter of a woman who grew up in Albert Lea.

Faculty, staff, students, parents and supporters of St. Rita School for the Deaf in Evendale, Ohio, were happy to remember Gemma Kaufman by naming the playground for her and releasing 300 balloons into the air with notes tied to them to wish the 3-year-old well in her next journey, said her grandmother, Annie Schleck.

Gemma Kaufman
Gemma Kaufman

Gemma died in March two days after she fell into a pond in Cincinnati. Schleck said doctors thought the girl would survive despite her lungs filling with pond water and contaminants, but she did not.

Gemma’s parents are Kurt and Rita Kaufman. Rita is a 2000 graduate of Albert Lea High School. Kurt is from Evansville, Ind. The two wed in February 2008 at St. Theodore Catholic Church in Albert Lea. Rita’s parents are Albert Lea residents Tom and Annie Schleck.

The Schlecks returned this week from the dedication ceremony.

Gemma “loved giving hugs,” Annie said. “She would always have her arms out to get a hug or give a hug.”

Gemma wasn’t deaf. She had apraxia, a speech disorder where a person has trouble conjuring words. St. Rita School for the Deaf, a Catholic institution, in 1992 began admitting students who, though not deaf, could benefit from communicating through sign language, such as apraxia patients, said Associate Executive Director Angie Frith.

“We saw a need for sign language for kids with language problems but were not deaf,” she said.

About 180 students are enrolled at St. Rita, with some as young as 6 weeks of age. She said the school started in 1915 and in the late 1980s and early 1990s began embracing an approach that focused on full-day intervention with emphasis on sensory perception to learn skills.

“Daily activities enrich and enhance each child’s language, cognitive, social, emotional, physical and creative development,” states the website.

Frith said about 80 students can hear. She said Gemma was able to tell her parents “I love you,” words she never could share before.

The playground had a $170,000 price tag and covers about an acre, said St. Rita Director of Advancement Julie O’Meara.

The playground features slides, a ramp, a swing set, a hopscotch area, monkey bars, a climbing wall and sensory stations.

The prior playground was 60 years old and was inappropriate for many students, O’Meara said. It had shredded tires and no means for wheelchair-bound people to approach it, or people who use walkers.

The new one has concrete pathways, with rubber concrete underneath key areas, such as swings, monkey bars and slides. Kids in wheelchairs, she said, have the ability to get out and crawl around and under the equipment, too. The playground was funded through a grant.

The entrance, however, was funded through private donations. It is the part that dedicates the place to Gemma Kaufman.

Frith said the plans to replace the playground were underway when Gemma died.

“We felt that was the most appropriate way to honor her as one of our students,” she said.

O’Meara, who wrote the grant and spearheaded the project, said the ceremony went well.

“It was wonderful to see the community come together and to see them support Gemma and her family,” she said.

Kurt and Rita Kaufman, who reside in Blue Ash, Ohio, have a 2-year-old son, Vincent.