New Kenwood playground seen as fitting tribute for crash victims

New Kenwood playground seen as fitting tribute for crash victims

CHAMPAIGN — Happiness, lately, has come to Jeffrey Brokish in the form of a new playground.

The lone survivor of a Texas car crash that left his wife and three young children dead in late March, the Champaign man describes himself about "as well as can be expected," and that's all he has to say on the matter.

But what has made him smile lately, he said, has been watching a memorial playground to his family take shape at Kenwood Elementary — the school that his 9-year-old son, Finn, attended.

It's a project inspired by both his wife, Jessica, and Finn: Both were less than enthusiastic about Kenwood's playground.

"I think the limitations that were there kind of frustrated (Finn) a little bit," Brokish said.

A minimalist-looking structure with muted colors, parts of the playground hadn't been updated since 1963, according to Kenwood Principal Trevor Nadrozny. It bothered Jessica, Jeffrey said, because she thought the children deserved better.

"That really resonated with her, that this was an obvious shortcoming," Brokish said. "She was just a real compassionate person. She was just super passionate about family and kids and so forth and that kind of expanded to the school in general."

He and his wife tried to help the school's parent teacher association fundraiser, to little success.

"The economics of it were such that it was taking forever to raise the amount of money that they needed," he said.

And then, after the March tragedy in Texas, Brokish said the playground was on his mind again. He, his parents and his in-laws came together in the wake of the accident, trying to think of a way to give back to a community that had been there for his family. In particular, he wanted to do something for Kenwood because of the way his son had been welcomed his first year there.

"Finn had moved in there at second grade," he said. "It was like new school, new people, oh gosh, what is this going to be like?

"But it's just a great environment there. Not that we were expecting the worst but just taken aback by how great it was there and so it just doubly motivated us to want to do something that was not only a tribute to us but a benefit to them."

The families didn't have to think long: Brokish said that as soon as the idea came to them — that they could donate several thousand dollars to Kenwood and finish the job — they knew it was right.

"I think it was a sort of serendipitous moment when we realized 'Yeah, that's the right thing. That's what Jessica would have wanted done,'" he said. "It just sort of all clicked for us that yes, that's the thing we wanted to do."

Finn — "the smarty-pants of the family," as Brokish describes him — would have loved it: a natural climber, the new playground features plenty of that and ways of engaging kids better than before. There will be a memorial plaque, but Brokish said the memorial will be at its truest form when children play on it, just like his wife would have wanted.

"It's a really nice tribute to the way she lived and looked out for others," he said.

Kenwood parent Libby Abbott said it's been a "rough" past few months, but her son is excited to see the finished project.

"He mentions Finnegan quite often, but he's also excited there's a new playground coming," she said. "It's not just a new one; it's a playground that's also Finnegan."