Touchstone Story #64–Matteo’s Dream

Matteo and his parents shared a dream. Lions helped make that dream come true.

Matteo’s Dream is a real place now, a special park filled with the sound of playing children, in the town of Concord, California, just outside of San Francisco. It exists because the hopes of a boy with disabilities inspired an entire community to act.

Adopted in 2000 as an infant by Lions Liz Lamach and Rene Henderson, Matteo faced many challenges. He yearned to be able to play with the other children at the playground. But conventional parks couldn’t accommodate a boy with multiple disabilities who used a wheelchair.

What Matteo needed was an “all-abilities” park. Such parks are carefully designed so that children with limitations on their abilities to walk, see or hear are able to play alongside other children. His parents wanted the same thing. “When I was a kid, playgrounds were one of my favorite things,” said Lamach. “I couldn’t imagine him going through life not experiencing that.”

Bolstered by a US$75,000 grant from Lions Clubs International Foundation, Lions in Northern California raised more than half a million dollars for a playground over a period of three years. The project gathered momentum in 2005 when the City of Concord donated US$220,000 and the land for the proposed park—to be named Matteo’s Dream.

In 2007, the long-planned dream came together. Over eight days, 3,000 local volunteers erected the 12,000-square-foot playground. Lions from 45 different clubs were among the many volunteers.

“It was like a barn-raising, when the whole community would come together to help a neighbor,” said Concord Director of Parks and Recreation Joan Carrico. “It was just very special.”

The park accommodates children with many disabilities, giving them a chance to play shoulder-to-shoulder with other children. A rubber surface and extra-wide ramps allow children in wheelchairs to maneuver easily. Slides are specially treated so they don’t generate static that interferes with cochlear implants or other hearing devices, and a tactile slide lets children with visual impairments feel different surfaces.

Matteo was seven years old when the park named after him was built, and he loved to visit. He was especially fond of sitting in the giant rocking-boat structure. Matteo died in 2011 when he was just 11, but he left behind a legacy: a playground where all children can have fun.

The high-profile success of the Concord park energized other towns to build their own inclusive parks. Lions posthumously honored Matteo as a Melvin Jones Fellow, citing “the lives that Matteo has touched around the world through his playgrounds.”

When Lions learned that the theme of the 2014 Tournament of Roses parade—a huge annual event held near Los Angeles that is broadcast to hundreds of millions of people around the world—was “Dreams Come True,” Lions planning the Lions’ float took action. They built their float to resemble the special park and named it “Lions Built Matteo’s Dream.” The float captured the parade judge’s attention and won the Tournament Special Trophy.

The Lions helped to create something special in Concord. “There would be no Matteo’s Dream without the Lions Club,” said Lamach.

Explore the exciting history of Lions Clubs International with our exclusive Touchstone Stories series. Don’t forget to share these stories with new members so they gain an understanding of Lions history!