Boy behind Bodie's Place playground now in 7th grade and eyeing his future

In 2011 John Vaccino, also known as Bodie, captured the city’s attention as his family unveiled the Bodie’s Place playground at Eisenhower Park, an expansive playground where children of all abilities can play. It features slides, interactive play equipment and a special surface that wheelchairs can access.

John had actually been making headlines in Milford for several years as his parents and the community worked to raise $400,000 for the playscape. John has cerebral palsy, and when he was younger, his parents took him to a Boundless Playground called Hannah’s Dream in New Haven. Lisa and John Vaccino were set on the project after they saw how John was able to play with his sister, Emma, as if he had no limitations.

Today, at age 14, John said he still goes to Bodie’s Place sometimes, but there is much more on his plate. The seventh grade student at Harborside Middle School is publishing his own school newspaper, preparing to advocate for people with disabilities, and he’s already trying to figure out just where he will fit in when it is time for him to pursue a career and make a life for himself.

John has limitations but he’s learning to work around them. With help from his special education teacher, he learned how to use a voice recognition program that allows him to type his ideas into a Google document on the computer, and eventually turn those ideas into articles that he publishes in his own school publication, called The Penguin Post.

The publication includes interviews with school and city officials, advice from Johnny, a quote of the day, and a list of upcoming events.

John wants to be a newspaper reporter someday, or a disc jockey, maybe both.

He thinks students like himself need to start earlier preparing for the future and building life skills.

“Four years of high school is not enough to plan a career,” John said.

His teachers agree.

“As you can imagine, the typical seventh grade curriculum is, at times, not always appropriate for students with multiple disabilities like John,” said Marissa Esteves, a special education teacher and department leader at Harborside Middle School. “Life skills curriculum typically begins when the students enter one of the high schools in town.”

At Harborside, however, lessons in life skills start early.

“There was a need for classes to begin preparing students with multiple disabilities without having to wait until high school,” Esteves said. “John Vaccino still learns reading, writing, math, science, and social studies, but through many different modes of teaching. John has an extremely dedicated and loving language arts teacher, Andrea Franzago, who goes above and beyond to help John engage and feel successful within his own abilities. He researched, wrote, and authored a book last year entitled Barack Obama, which is available for checkout in the Harborside library.”

John said he loves creating his school newspaper. He and Franzago brainstorm about whom to interview. John said he usually likes to find people students may not know a lot about and write about what those people do.

John also interviewed Mayor Ben Blake, his favorite interview so far, he said.

“He gave me a lot of information about what can be done to help kids with special needs,” John said.

The mayor encouraged John to start advocating for others with disabilities, and John said that will be his next task. He will start writing advocacy letters and send them to people with the power to make changes and help those with disabilities become successful.

His school newspaper has been a big help to him. John said he’s honed his writing skills, is perfecting his punctuation, and is mastering programs like Google and Word. He’s also learned interview and research skills, plus the importance of making sure the information in his articles is correct. He fact checks, often “going to the source,” he said, to make sure his information is right.

If he could interview anyone in the world, he said, he would interview Donald Trump.

“Some people don’t know what the president does,” John said.

His choice is not an indicator of political preferences: John is interested in politics and presidents, Republicans and Democrats, evidenced by the book he published last year about President Barack Obama. The book includes photos, facts and narrative about President Trump’s predecessor.

Franzago started pursuing publishing avenues for helping John learn because he often talked about his desire to be a newspaper reporter.

“I thought, What better way to learn reading, writing and research,” she said.

John plans to get involved with the Harborside School student newspaper, and when he graduates and goes to Jonathan Law, he wants to write for the Advocate, Law’s school newspaper.

He wants to make sure he has the skills to be a career writer one day.

“Maybe what I write would make a difference in the world,” John said.