By Sue Botos
When the weather is warmer and children swarm the park at the Rocky River City Hall campus, it’s easy to overlook the plaque bearing Matthew James McCarthy’s name, proclaiming that the playground is “dedicated to children of all abilities.”
But on a quiet winter day, with a gentle snow falling, a visitor can almost feel the presence of the little boy who inspired the play area.
Seated in the Lakewood storefront that houses Matthew’s Lending Library, a nonprofit organization providing adaptive equipment and toys for children with special needs, Matthew’s mom, Vicki McCarthy, recalled the frustration she felt when her son could not use standard playground equipment.
“I went to (then) Mayor Earl Martin and said, ‘My child can’t play on your playground.’ At first he didn’t know what I was talking about.” McCarthy then explained that even an adaptive swing would allow Matthew, who was born in 1981 with cerebral palsy and had other, independent disabilities, to enjoy the park.
“Earl was just so on-board with getting the playground to be successful,” noted McCarthy, who said the city raised all of the funds for the playground.
Play equipment is just one challenge faced by parents of special needs children, and McCarthy recalled her frustration when trying to find the items Matthew, who passed away at age 8, needed every day. This led to the birth of Matthew’s Lending Library.
“My son died, and we knew how hard it was to get adaptive equipment for him. It was very difficult to get and extremely expensive, pretty much cost-prohibitive. I was kind of at a loss when he passed. I didn’t know what to do with myself and I had his things and I thought (that) there are families out there who could use this,” McCarthy remembered.
The organization soon outgrew the McCarthys’ garage and an additional storage facility. For eight years it operated out of space on Smith Court in Rocky River, then moved to Lakewood to be more “centrally located,” according to McCarthy.
Matthew’s Lending Library continues to grow, with 350 children and young adults registered. “Our goal is to try to help the kids reach their fullest potential,” said McCarthy, who also hopes to ease the stress on families, starting with the application process.
“It’s very simple. Part of the reason why our enrollment process is so simple is that when my son was living … the paperwork and the hoops you had to jump through was just so ridiculous. I wanted to make it as simple as possible,” she said, adding that the only criterion for membership is a disability requiring adaptive equipment. She said there is a onetime fee of $25, which is often waived.
Items in the jam-packed store range from mobility equipment to items that position a child while eating or bathing, to “capability switch”-operated toys. These toys attach to a large button, allowing children with limited fine motor skills to operate them. McCarthy recalled the story of a child who was finally able to blow out birthday candles with a fan hooked up to a capability switch.
As items are outgrown, parents can exchange them. The items are then refurbished and made ready for another child. Adaptive bikes and trikes, which can run between $1,400 and $1,500, are the most-sought items, but also the hardest to keep in stock. “That’s the heartbreaking thing, when a parent calls and we don’t have it available,” McCarthy said.
As McCarthy demonstrates equipment for a visitor, she recalled the stares and cruelty from other children and sometimes adults that her son endured. But she is hopeful that is changing. Because of inclusion policies in classrooms, she feels children are getting more used to seeing special needs children.
She hopes others will learn from these children, just as she learned from Matthew. As she looked around her packed store, she smiled. “Matthew started all of this and I’m proud of him.”
SIDEBAR: Matthew’s Lending Library is at 15528 Madison Ave. in Lakewood. Call 216-226-3669 or visit www.matthewslendinglibrary.org for more information. Vicki McCarthy can be reached at MLendingLi@aol.com.