Whether it’s on the sandy beaches of Cape Cod or in the wooded hills of a state park, Lotte Diomede wants to be able to take a vacation with her whole family.
That includes her son Nicholas, a 15-year-old Perkins School for the Blind student, who was born with hydrocephaly, a congenital brain condition, and requires a wheelchair and around-the-clock care.
“Sometimes people think I’m crazy,” she said. “But I always take my kids with me.”
That’s why Diomede created SMILE Mass (Small Miracles in Life Exist) in 2009. The nonprofit donates accessible beach wheelchairs to more than 100 locations in Cape Cod and the Boston area for families with members who are blind or have other disabilities. The wheelchairs have oversize wheels that allow them to operate in the sand, and buoyant armrests and waterproof components so they can float in the water.
“I once helped a woman get a beach wheelchair, and she told me, ‘I feel like I won the lottery!’ It shouldn’t be like that,” Diomede said. “Every recreation area should be 100 percent handicap accessible.”
SMILE Mass also offers two adapted bikes that make it easier for children with disabilities to balance and pedal, and five jogging strollers for parents to push their children during runs, all available for families to take on vacation wherever they go.
Diomede’s efforts to make vacations more accessible for families with children with disabilities started in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where she lives.
Nicholas, who began attending Perkins when he was 5 years old, always enjoyed the classes and on-campus activities. But after school, Diomede wanted him to be able to go out and socialize like his younger sister, Annabelle.
“Nicholas couldn’t even get into the playground, and when we used to go, he’d get so mad and be cranky and crying (because the equipment wasn’t accessible),” she said. “In playgrounds, incidental learning happens (when sighted children learn by observing the world), and kids like Nicholas are totally deprived of that.”
She rallied friends and family and the local community, creating SMILE Sudbury to raise nearly $300,000 to build an accessible playground. Inspired by the support, the organization became SMILE Mass, and she set her sights on making popular vacation spots along the Cape accessible.
Moving forward, Diomede has an even more ambitious goal. SMILE Mass is planning to buy and renovate a beach house in Cape Cod, so families will have everything from ramps to accessible bathrooms to make a vacation week more comfortable.
She hopes the house will be ready by summer 2017. That will make it possible for families like hers to take their children with disabilities on a beach vacation – so the entire family can enjoy the sun, sand and ocean waves.
“People ask me why I don’t just send (Nicholas) to camp for a week and then go” on vacation, she said. “Sure, it’s easier, but it’s not what I want, and it’s not what he wants. He just wants to be part of what everyone else does.”