Anything is possible, and Diane Florio-Penza and her staff at the imPOSSIBLE DREAM prove that every day.
The non-profit organization that grants wishes for chronically ill children in Rhode Island turned 30 in December and is hosting an open house at their playground to celebrate on Sept. 28.
“The Board of Directors talked about going to a restaurant or something like that, but this is where we live and this is what we are all about, so I think it’s important to use your home,” said Florio-Penza, who has been the executive director since 1996. She founded the organization in 1982 with her father, John D. Florio Jr., who served as executive director until he passed away in 1995.
She waited for warm weather to host it, figuring early autumn was the best bet.
“If we were to have it in the winter, our hall only holds 125,” Florio-Penza said. “Having it outside gives us the pleasure of inviting hundreds of people.”
The staff plans to temporarily move the miniature golf course and replace it with tents and tables for the party. The playground will be lit, and a projector screen will showcase a slide show of memorable images.
“We’ve gone from the very beginning, right up until today,” she said.
Photo displays will feature the Dream children, members of the Board of Directors, the building and opening of the playground, which took place 23 years ago, fundraisers such as the 21st annual Motorcycle Mystery Ride, recent golf tournaments, and Florio-Penza’s father.
“The only thing that could make the night better would be if he were here, but he’ll be looking down,” Florio-Penza said. “He’ll be watching.”
Her mother, Florence Florio, along with other family members, will be in attendance. A few adults, who played there as children, also plan to attend.
“Everybody is welcome,” she said. “If you’ve been touched by the Dream, we certainly want you to be here.”
While flowers have been donated by Stop & Shop on Greenwich Avenue, with some of the spirits provided by McLaughlin & Moran, Inc., the event is going to be catered by Stacey Marfeo of Bella Gente Italian Bistro.
Florio-Penza and Annmarie Yaghjian, the Dream’s event coordinator, are making fall-themed desserts with flavors such as pumpkin, squash, apple, as well as chocolate.
Florio-Penza said she’s grateful for Yaghjian’s help.
“I’m blessed to have Annmarie,” she said. “I could not do this alone and I am very fortunate to have found someone who is as dedicated to the idea as I am. Children deserve dreams and they deserve a safe place to play.”
The playground, which is handicapped accessible, is free and open daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. In recent years, the imPOSSIBLE DREAM faced financial hardship when the economy was suffering, as it survives mostly on donations and fundraisers. While some people suggested she charge patrons to use the playground, Forio-Penza said she refuses to because she knows it would be a burden for families.
“If I were to pick a price of $5, there are a lot of families that have three and four children, so that’s $20 for children to come here and play,” she said. “If I did that, I think it would completely lose the idea of it. We weathered what I think was the worst part of the storm. We are seeing a little bit of sunshine, but I’m cautiously optimistic.”
When the facility was erected in 1989, with the playground coming the following year, there was a misconception that it was only for children with disabilities. Through the years, they’ve helped people realize it’s for all children.
Still, said Florio-Penza, she’s amazed at the advances that have taken place for people with disabilities. Thirty years ago, not all hotels or vendors had proper accommodations for Dream children.
“Now, it’s second nature,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see the progress the world has made. It holds such an excitement when a child in a wheelchair realizes they can do things here. Seeing a child enjoying an experience that they’ve never had before makes me feel grateful to be here.”
Florio-Penza said the advances would pleasantly surprise her father, too.
“He would be extremely happy with the amount of children we have helped and would be incredibly happy to see the number of kids that come through the playground,” she said.
In the beginning, there were about 10 children that visited the playground a day. These days, upwards of 500 children swing by per week. Nearly 1,000 children have received wishes through the years.
Florio-Penza is looking forward to the event not only to celebrate, but also to thank the many people who have made and continue to make contributions. They made the imPOSSIBLE happen.
“There are so many people who have been good to me the last 30 years,” she said. “It will be nice to spend time with each guest.”
The event is geared toward adults, and guests are to wear business casual attire. It begins at 6 p.m. and wraps up at 10.
“If you have something earlier, you can come later and if you have something later, you can come earlier,” she said. “We just want everyone to come, and all the people who have written checks over the years to see what they accomplished.”
Tickets are $50 each. Call 823-5566 to make a reservation. The imPOSSIBLE DREAM is located at 575 Centerville Road.
“I have the best job in the world,” said Florio-Penza. “There’s no place I’d rather be and nothing I’d rather be doing.”