Linda McKenzie 's son Owen hated bike rides.
The 6-year-old would wail from his bike seat as McKenzie and her husband would ride from their Evanston home — usually eyeing the brightly colored park blocks away.
The playground would become a kind of ground zero to make Owen, who deals with significant special needs, including developmental delays and limited mobility and speech, more comfortable with the rides.
With each ride, they'd travel one more block, McKenzie said.
"That was our goal, if we could make it to that playground," the mother of four said.
They made it eventually, and Owen did what he couldn't do for years: He ran and swung on swings, all with his siblings.
McKenzie learned a couple years ago that this playground— their family's favorite playground — Noah's Playground for Everyone, had been created by lawyer David Cutter and his wife, Julie, after their son, who also faced physical and mental disabilities, died at 2½ years old.
"I burst into tears," McKenzie said. "This is why we were (meant) to get to the playground."
Free to be himself
Noah Cutter loved the sound of the DustBuster and that crackle when cellophane bunches. He couldn't speak, but he showed love through his cuddling and laughter over the vacuuming.
"He would giggle like you wouldn't believe," said his father, David Cutter, a partner in Troutman Sanders' insurance practice.
Cutter, a Massachusetts native, practiced as an associate at then-named Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw in Washington, D.C., when Noah was born on May 13, 2003, with several neurological abnormalities. As their son got older, he and his wife, a government policy analyst, learned that Noah would experience problems speaking, seeing and moving.
When they realized the enormity of his challenges, they decided that moving near Julie Cutter's family would provide them with greater support. The couple left the Washington home they recently renovated and moved to Evanston. They began educating themselves on how best to raise a child who faces physical and mental disabilities.
"Learning how to get yourself that help is a critical thing to learn," David said.
Some of life's simplest pleasures, like hearing a song, became a reason for familial rejoicing in the Cutter home. Noah took a particular liking to the song, "Free To Be You and Me" by Marlo Thomas and Friends.
But there weren't many places they could take their son and daughter, Ali, — who they adopted from China in 2004 when she was 11 months old — to interact and play together.
The Cutters knew caring for Noah would require patience and love; they came armed with both. They planned on building an addition to the back of their home and adding an elevator that would help transport Noah to other parts of the house.
The couple expected that Noah's life would be difficult. But despite his limitations, the young boy began displaying his personality and connecting with his loved ones.
"He was very loving," Julie said. "He knew people, he knew their voices."
But on Christmas Eve in 2005, Noah died in his sleep. Doctors determined no exact cause of his death. Despite his neurological challenges, he seemed healthy, David said.
"His death was completely unexpected," he said. "You're in a different state of shock."
A recipe for success
After Noah died, the Cutters worked through their grief, trying to focus it, and their memories, in a positive light.
Julie's sister-in-law suggested the family work with the city of Evanston on a playground. They wanted to honor Noah in part by creating a haven where he would have enjoyed being a child.
The couple met with city officials, including Stefanie Levine, the city's landscape architect in the Evanston Parks and Recreation Department.
"It's not really common to find private citizens who are going to go out and build something really special together," Levine said.
Working with a public agency on a community project "can be quite cumbersome," Levine said, and "they kind of just went with the flow."
Planners estimated the playground would cost $840,000 to construct. The Cutters set a goal of raising $400,000, with the city expected to supply the rest. And so began the Cutters' roles as project managers and fundraisers. They donated their own money and received support from family and friends.
Someone within David's firm — then Ross, Dixon & Bell — suggested selling a cookbook to help raise money, said Eileen Bower, a partner in Troutman Sanders' insurance practice. One of the firm's vendors, Document Technologies Inc., volunteered to print the spiral-bound, nearly 300-page book.
Attorneys and staff from throughout the firm contributed their favorite culinary expertise to the cause.
On page 133 of "Noah's Playground Palate-Pleasers," for example, one can learn how to make Impossibly Easy Southwestern Pie. Hundreds of other beloved dishes pepper the pages, including Gloria's Szechuan Chicken, Our Lulu's Fried Chicken, Mak's Amazing Fruit Pizza and even Donnie's Salmon Recipe — Cutter's own contribution.
The collection of dishes proved to be not just recipes. It would help celebrate a little boy's life and represent the support of an entire law firm in helping make this project happen.
Bower's son, Liam, drew photos of eggs, bacon and soup. The cookbook evolved into precisely what it aimed to do — raise money for a cause that could bond a community, within the firm and within Evanston.
"The lessons learned by children who play together as equals results in a community in which everyone is valued, develops fully, contributes and is loved … regardless of their abilities or disabilities," the book's dedication reads.
Creating the cookbook was a "way to bring together everyone at the firm and also bring our families together," Bower said.
It allowed David's work family — even those working in the firm's other national and international offices who did not know him — to support his family at home.
"They were very proud David was doing something," Julie said of his co-workers.
For Bower, it gave her a chance to help someone who not only became a good friend, but also a trusted adviser.
David, the chairman of Troutman Sanders' Chicago pro bono committee, earned his law degree in 1995 from the Catholic University of Americas Columbus School of Law. He spent five years as a commercial litigator before representing insurers.
He also spent four years representing policyholders which, Bower said, allows him "a unique expertise." He's able to give a well-rounded perspective, she said, upon which she often relies.
Bower described David as someone who works diligently to find an optimistic solution to a quandary. It seems fitting, then, that he recognizes how his son's playground helped sharpen his work as an attorney.
Countless hours spent on everything from raising money to deciding key, specific details of his son's playground also helped hone his legal skills, David said.
"You really learn to focus on the big things," he said. "That's crucial of what we do as lawyers."
Like building a house
Wheelchair-friendly ramps wind through the rubber-lined ground of Lawson Park, overlooking Lake Michigan.
Multiple sets of swings — adjustable, and large and small — stand near seated rocking toys, painted bright colors to assist children with visual challenges. An elevated sandbox lets children who use wheelchairs dig in and build.
A plaque describes the namesake of the park, also etched in stone in multicolor: Noah's Playground for Everyone.
It would take nearly two years of fundraising and detailed planning to dream up the haven of inclusive fun.
The Cutters and Levine enlisted the advice of experts specializing in children with special needs on what elements the playground should include. They sought input, too, from families in the community. They wanted the playground to be as inclusive as possible — from its creation, to the children and families who use it.
Julie likened the process to building a house, calling it a "labor of love." The Cutters and the city ensured equipment and the grounds became compliant with Americans With Disabilities Act regulations and beyond. They added Braille boards and open-sided picnic tables. After about two years of planning, the playground opened in 2008.
"This is a playground Noah would have needed," David said.
No doubt, he said, his son would have loved the swings.
Levine said Evanston officials remain mindful of residents with disabilities when planning community recreation programs and equipment.
"But what they did, we kind of took it a step further and enhanced it to a higher level," she said.
"We didn't want it to look like, 'This is a park for special needs children.'"
Providing that kind of seamless inclusivity proved chiefly important to Noah's parents.
"Your life can be enriched by knowing somebody who isn't like you," Julie said.
Noah spread that kind of message in his brief life, David said.
"He still managed to have a positive influence," he said.
In June, the doorbell at the Cutters' home rang. When Julie answered it, their 6-year-old neighbor, Brock Janicki, stared back at her and proudly exclaimed, "We went to your playground today."
Anne Trompeter figured her son visited the Cutters to play with Zach, their 5-year-old son, who they adopted from Ethiopia in 2007. She said she had no idea the nature of his sweet house call until she learned later.
"I was pleased and moved," Trompeter said. "I thought, this really got inside him in a good way. It totally came out of a heartfelt message."
The incident acts as an example of the thank-yous the Cutters received since their son's park opened four years ago. Every year, the family receives at least a couple of e-mails and letters detailing other children's joy from Noah's namesake.
"To hear the one or two kids who had a play experience," Julie said, "that's what it's about."
Trompeter had been taking Brock to the playground for a while, but on their latest trip — the day before he visited the Cutters — she chose to tell him more about the park's significance. She showed her son, who does not have any physical or mental disabilities, the plaque describing Noah and the park.
Through some tears, Trompeter said, she read her young boy the story of another whose life ended too soon. He asked why she was crying.
"I told him, 'I'm not crying for sadness,'" she said. "'I'm so happy we can remember him this way.'"
She pointed out swings and slides and reminded her son that just because he can climb up some equipment doesn't mean all little boys can.
"We've had a learning moment around it," she said.
The pair now often undertake a small, but significant, ritual during their park trips. They smooth the small bits of black gravel that may obstruct the plaque describing Noah's life. Trompeter said Brock eagerly embraces his task as mini-caretaker and brushes the debris from the words.
Though they didn't help build it, she said, "We can also be stewards of the park."
For Linda McKenzie, the park provides a "priceless" refuge where all of her children can play in one area.
"It's an extremely short list, what we can do together," she said. "It was great just to see my other kids, they always get excited to see when Owen can get something typical."
This summer, Time Out Chicago nominated the park in a poll with four others in or around Chicago as the area's best playground.
"The playground has been a big success, and our hope is it continues to be a destination for people," David said.
Morphing their initiative into Noah's Playground and Beyond, the Cutters said they hope to raise more money to add equipment and projects at their son's site as well as others throughout Evanston.
David, who served as a camp counselor in his youth, said he wants to spread his desire to support children's development well beyond the green of his son's playground.
"David's so inspirational," Bower, his law firm colleague, said, not only for showing strength after Noah's death, but also for doing what he could do "to help other children with special needs in their community."
In 2006, he and his wife began regularly participating in WTMX FM 101.9's Eric & Kathy's 36-Hour Radiothon, benefiting the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago (formerly Children's Memorial Hospital), where Noah received care.
Bower said she and other firm staffers supported David by participating in the most recent radio fundraiser.
"I knew their legacy before I knew them as people," said Seth Green, executive director at Evanston's Youth Organizations Umbrella (YOU). Green's 18-month-old daughter's favorite playground is Noah's.
"I just knew that it had fabulous and entertaining facilities for kids," Green said. "And then over time, I learned the story and was very inspired."
Green met David about a year ago when he took over as head of YOU, which aims to provide leadership and programs to support youth development. David recently joined the group's board of directors and already immersed himself in its mission, Green said.
He commended David for bringing an analytical mind and passion to the group, where he serves on both its capital and strategic planning committees.
Green called him "team-oriented," someone who learns as much information about the group's initiatives before weighing in with his own advice.
"He's an incredibly warm person and he's a great listener," Green said.
"His understanding of the preciousness of life and youth developing into healthy individuals is something I'm sure drives everything he does."
He said he expects David's contribution to Evanston's youth to reach far beyond the already significant impact of the park.
"The Evanston community sees it as their playground," Green said. "That's really important, because whenever we separate kids, they notice and it can be stigmatizing."
McKenzie said she appreciates the playground's ability to bond all children as well as its goal of treating all children equally.
Creating a park solely for children with disabilities, "just isolates them that much more," she said.
The playground helps children with disabilities be active members of their community, she said, which helps foster understanding and acceptance among other children and families.
She praised the Cutters for helping establish an environment of inclusiveness.
For Trompeter and Brock, the playground "has activated kind of an ongoing dialogue."
Addressing people with special needs can be a tricky subject, even for adults, she said.
"It's educational for me too. We've been learning together," Trompeter said.
The playground has helped start a conversation about not fearing, but rather, embracing people's differences.
"Everyone isn't born healthy," Trompeter said she told her son.
She said the message becomes even more important as Brock prepares for kindergarten.
Trompeter praised her neighbors for creating a place where such education and joy take place.
"I thought, those people are amazing, to have the resources and ability to make a real positive contribution out of it," she said.
"That they took a personal tragedy and turned it into something positive for the community is such an inspiration," Bower said.
David said he doesn't consider himself a particularly political person. But he said getting involved in YOU and creating Noah's Playground showed him the kind of positive influence grassroots efforts can have on a community.
"You can make a positive impact, one child at a time," David said.
Originally published in Chicago Lawyers Magazine.