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New Gorton playground in Lake Forest reflects center’s turnaround

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A dozen preschoolers, toddlers and infants clambered onto the new educational playground at the Gorton Drop-In Center during its official opening Tuesday morning.

“Oh my gosh. I can’t believe it,” Thomas Wells, 3, said as he walked down the ramp to his once-familiar play spot with his mom Amy Wells and sister, Abby Wells, 21 months.

The sunny morning on Oct. 8 revealed an outdoor space on the east side of the Gorton Center that probably looked as if a fairy godmother waved her magic wand to transform the old, tired play equipment and hard black surface into new curvilinear, colorful play structures and a child-friendly cushioned ground cover.

The playground project “is the first improvement the community has done since the rebuild of Gorton started in 2011. It was the young parents who did it,” Gorton Center Executive Director Brenda Dick said.

The Drop-In Center Parent Board decided in January to focus its efforts on the playground refurbishment. They hoped to raise $41,000 at their annual Oktoberfest in September, but this year blasted through that mark and raised a total of approximately $60,000.

Financing the new playground “was critical to the Board,” President Kate Rother of Lake Forest said. “Everyone felt engaged and got involved.”

“This is really inspiring,” Dick said during the opening-day ceremony “to welcome a new place into our hearts.”

The Gorton Community Center, founded by concerned residents in 1972 to save the former Gorton School from the wrecking ball, fell on tough times during the recent economic downturn, which prompted community members to band together with leadership from the Lake Forest City Council to save the city-owned building a second time and steer the organization toward a better future.

Drop-In Center Director Lisa Spewak designed the new playground with learning and safety in mind.

“I was aiming for something a little more up-to-date and that was more age-appropriate,” Spewak said. “Our older playground was built for children who are older than the children that we are serving.”

The new equipment includes a smaller piece specifically for infants and toddlers.

“It’s low to the ground and children can scale it and start to use their skills as early walkers and pre-walkers,” Spewak said.

The smaller piece also includes a tunnel, beads to slide, shapes to spin, a mirror and a sand-and-water table, a new feature for the Drop-In Center playground.

The goal was “to make it really interesting and educational,” Spewak said. “There are shapes and an alphabet, lots of gross-motor skills activities. It’s a much more updated and safer piece of equipment.”

In general, Spewak believes the new outdoor space “just has a little more curb appeal.”

“It’s exciting,” she added. “It has different colors that kind of blend into our surroundings.”

Yet to come is a portable learning garden that will be moved to follow pockets of sun that appear in the mostly shady space. The garden will come in the spring, Spewak said.

Kate Leech of Lake Forest discovered the Drop-In Center in April when her family moved to Lake Forest and quickly found it a good fit for her twins, Emma and Henry, 3. She didn’t want to miss Tuesday’s unveiling.

“This place saved my life when we were moving in,” Kate Leech said.

Her children “love it” at the Drop-In Center and clearly had fun trying out each new playground features Tuesday.

Miah Armour of Green Oaks, who brought son Wyatt Armour, 2, to the opening, believes the new facility was forward-thinking.

“It’s so great for the kids who come through here now ­— and in the future,” she said.

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