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.
"We did a lot of community outreach - spoke to kids at schools, local service organizations and mail campaigns. We also hosted a large event at the Westford Regency that raised $60,000 for us," Stephanie McKelligott wrote in an e-mail.
Westford provided $60,000 and a place for the playground.
This is a Boundless Playground, a fully handicap-accessible playground where swings are slanted so kids who can't lift their heads can swing comfortably and the slide is double-tracked so people can slide alongside while holding the hand of a handicap child. A special ground covering welcomes wheelchairs and walkers.
Boundless Playgrounds is the first national non-profit group working to to create barrier-free playgrounds like the new Ronan McElligott Memorial Playground in Westford.
The playground's dedication is Saturday, Nov. 14, from 2 to 4 p.m., rain or shine, at Edwards Beach in Westford.
For more information, see www.westford.com/ronansplayground.com.