Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

Townspeople

November 11, 2009

Tragedy to triumph, and a special playground

When her infant son was unresponsive at feeding time one June day in 2007, Stephanie (Chechik) McElligott quickly packed up Ronan and drove to Lowell General Hospital.

Over 9 pounds at birth, little Ronan was a good eater so his behavior was alarming. Doctors were just as puzzled as McElligott, a Westford mom who grew up in Andover. After a helicopter ride to a Boston hospital, Stephanie and her husband Steve were bedside for weeks waiting to learn what was wrong with their baby.

Sadly, Ronan would never respond. He was on life support for seven weeks until the heartbreaking decision to disconnect him was made.

Ronan McElligott was just 5 months old when he died on Aug. 31, 2007. He died of Leigh's disease, a very rare genetic disorder. He also left behind his big sister, Brynn, now 5.

While such events can tear some families apart, the McElligotts came together to raise around $280,000 to build a playground for children with the disabilities that Ronan would have faced if he had lived.

Ronan's grandparents, the Chechiks, lived on Farrwood Drive for 35 years. Paula Chechik and her husband, Howard, downsized about five years ago and now live in North Chelmsford. They will help to dedicate the new playground for special needs children in Westford this weekend.

"I'll never forget Stephanie's call. She said, 'I want to build a playground in Ronan's memory. You in?'" Paula Chechik said. "Steph is very determined."

Despite being close to 80, these grandparents were definitely in, along with scores of other family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers. In just 18 months, the money was collected.

Stephanie McElligott, who graduated from Pike School, then Andover High School in 1988, and then the University of New Hampshire, said she and her husband - who are expecting twins in late January - chose a playground because "we realized that if Ronan lived, there was nothing he could have enjoyed at our playground. His disease was very progressive so he didn't live past infancy, but children who live a little longer with Leigh's disease do typically suffer significant disabilities. It really opened our eyes to challenges children and families with disabilities face.

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