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North Hills

Girl Scout helps make a North Park playground more autism-friendly

| Monday, May 14, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Maria Ciao earned her Girl Scout Gold Award by making a playground in North Park more autism friendly.
Maria Ciao earned her Girl Scout Gold Award by making a playground in North Park more autism friendly.

Maria Ciao might be 18, but she still knows the value of playtime.

To earn her Girl Scout Gold Award — the organization's highest achievement — the North Hills High School senior made a playground in North Park more welcoming to children with autism and other sensory issues.

Located near the Flagstaff Grove shelter on Walters Road, the site now boasts four new, colorful benches and a trash can, sound panels equipped with bongos, chimes and clicking gears and a natural boarder of ornamental grasses and flowers.

Trees that were dead and potentially dangerous were removed and a culvert was re-landscaped to make the area safer for all visitors.

Ciao, who joined the Girl Scouts when she was in kindergarten, was inspired to pursue the project from her years of volunteering at Glade Run Specialized Adventures Camp. The Zelienople-based program is designed for children with moderate- to high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. The experience also moved Ciao to co-author a children's book about autism with her friend and fellow Troop 50226 member Isabella Haberstock.

On May 5, Ciao, along with her family and friends and representatives from Allegheny County Parks and Recreation, the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and the Knights of Columbus St. Sebastian Council 14696, formally dedicated the new playground, the first of its kind in the county.

The celebration came three years after Ciao first started her project, which required her to scope out all of the playgrounds in North Park to find one with suitable parking and restroom facilities. Once she found the location, she began fundraising and contacting different government officials, organizations and businesses, such as General Recreation, Inc., which manufactured the autism-friendly equipment.

The Autism Society of Pittsburgh donated $5,000 to the project. President Emeritus Daniel Torisky was on hand to praise Ciao for her efforts.

The father of an autistic son, Torisky founded the organization in 1965 to help fund research and support other parents.

“Maria is the future,” he said. “The faith I have in the millennials and sub-millennials gives me hope.”

Maria's parents, Gary and Tina Ciao of Ross, said it was a great learning experience and helped bolster her daughter's communication and leadership skills, which she can carry into college this fall.

“What I'm hoping to do is pass the torch off to a local Brownie troop who can come out once a month to take care of the playground,” Maria Ciao said.

Kristy Locklin is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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