The Horizon Elementary School playground was crowded even though it wasn’t time for recess.
The students were there to dedicate a new wheelchair accessible swing. With his parents guiding his wheelchair on to the apparatus, kindergartener Austin Rousselow gave it a try.
The swing was placed there in memory of Josh Ackerley, a Horizon student who passed away last year.
“This is great. I know Josh would have loved to have sit in the swing all day,” said Ed Ackerley. “They can sit there and they can enjoy, and the other kids can say they can be on the playground too. They don't just have to sit with us, he can actually participate.”
When Josh and his twin brother Jacob were born 12 years ago, there wasn't a clear indication what was wrong.
“We went in and Joshua came out first, and then his twin brother Jacob popped right out,” said Tracey Ackerley, the boys’ mom. “They were born in the same minute.”
It was later determined that blood loss to the brain meant multiple complications for Josh.
“He was legally blind, just [saw] shadows,” explained Margaret Gillis-Stough, his nurse. “He was nonverbal. He could not move. He could kind of move little parts, hands and legs, but very limited movement.”
And yet, he was welcomed at Horizon Elementary School.
“He could just brighten your day with just a smile,” said Josh’s friend Lincoln Martinez. “He was the greatest person you could ever meet.”
“Very quickly our class connected with him,” explained teacher Joann Hartline. “He wasn't someone different, he was somebody the same, and he had so much to offer. The kids loved him just as much as I did.”
Hartline told us about the new equipment and the need for funds. Martin's Super Markets pitched in $1,000 with the One School at a Time grant.
South Bend Monuments donated a rock where kids can go if they have no one to play with.
“I think the rock is a special edition just because it invites kids, just like Josh would invite kids,” said Hartline. “Josh was like a magnet. Wherever he was, there were kids around him. And I think that's the same with the rock.”
“It's a silent message for those kids that if they're having a bad day, come and sit on Josh's rock,” said Tracey Ackerley.
“He was a fantastic kid, he changed my life,” said Gillis-Stough. “I have never really thought of myself as a teacher, but when I got to come to school with Joshua, I got to teach the kids that he's just like everybody else.”
Tyler and Jacob Ackerley are pleased that their brother will be remembered for his happiness.
“It's a really good feeling,” said Tyler. “It’s good to know that there are people who care.”
“He was always happy,” said Jacob. “He didn't have to get mad at people because no one would be angry towards him.”
Josh never spoke a word, but he changed his corner of the world. His mother is inspired by the lesson he taught others.
“That was my hope,” she said. “That Josh could teach empathy, and I think he did that.”
The students and staff at Horizon Elementary are not stopping there. They want to add more handicapped accessible equipment to their other playgrounds.
This is the last day of school at Horizon, and it’s our last One School at a Time grant for this school year. If you want to help your school with a specific need, you can apply for Martin's Super Markets' One School at a Time grant. Just fill out an application online at wndu.com/features/oneschool
The winning school gets $1,000 from Martin's Super Markets. Our next winner will be picked in August.