Cheryl Makin, @CherylMakin 4:36 p.m. EDT October 16, 2014
Photos: Kathy Johnson/MyCentralJersey, Courier News
Wednesday’s Octoberfest is one of many annual events and tours hosted on the 87 acres of Greek’s Playland. The free parties are for disabled and disadvantaged youth and adults.
MONROE – “You can feel the love,” said The Greek of the annual Octoberfest event hosted at Greek’s Playland on Spotswood Englishtown Road. Peals of laughter and giggles emanate from the various rooms set up for some 450 disabled children and adults. From the Dixieland band and Spiderman greeting the guests to the spin art and sand art activities to the balloon animals and face painting, the event was a break from the typical school day.
With a life mission to help others, particularly the disabled and disadvantaged, The Greek, legally known as Spiro Drake, fulfills his goals through Greek’s Playland. Wednesday’s Octoberfest is one of many annual events and tours hosted on the 87 acres.
“Oh he is so happy,” said Laura Lowande, a teacher’s assistant with the Douglass Developmental Disability Center (DDDC), of the nonverbal toddler with the huge smile she was holding. “We come every year. All the kids love it. They adore all the activities.”
For four hours, children, adults and educators played, danced, ate and created. Decorated with Fall and Halloween themes, Greek’s Playland has been hosting Octoberfest for 12 years.
“It’s free of charge,” The Greek said. “And everybody volunteers and donates their services and goods.”
In 1970, The Greek purchased an existing chicken farm to house both his landscaping operation and the future Greek’s Playland. Two years later, the doors opened to the disabled and disadvantaged.
Since the opening, state organizations have brought more than 100,000 disabled children and adults for days of free fun with food and amusements. All they supply is transportation and teachers or counselors, he said. This year, the guests mainly came from DDDC of New Brunswick, Bright Beginnings Learning Center (BBLC) in Piscataway and Piscataway Regional Day School (PRDS).
“They are so excited,” said teacher Katie Grannis of her charges from PRDS. “They are really having fun. There is so much for them to do.”
“It feels great to come here,” said James Marrentano, a behavior analyst at DDDC. “There are a lot of fun recreation activities for them to do. Everybody has a good time.”
“I love it,” said Diana Carvallo, a teacher’s aide with BBLC. “It’s not just the kids who are happy. I get so excited to come back every year!”
A sign from above
At the entrance of Greek’s Playland is Monroe the Dino, a 20-foot-tall dinosaur replica that growls with the touch of a hidden button. There’s a Coca Cola room, M60 tank and a Cobra helicopter, tire park, miniature golf courses, a firetruck as well as a half-mile of covered wheelchair accessible walkways that overlook naturescapes and waterfalls. Throughout the visitors explore and play with their teachers and counselors.
That firetruck that holds a special soft spot for The Greek. In the 1980s, during one of the parties, a young boy drowned in a swimming pool. Devastated, The Greek filled in the pool the next day and swore there would be no more parties. He would honor the ones already on the calendar, but “no more.”
A couple parties later, there was another commotion. A 13-year-old girl ran to go on the firetruck.
“I couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal,” he said. “A 13-year-old on a firetruck. Then, I was told she was so excited that she dropped her crutches to run to get on that firetruck and she walked out of here. That was a sign to me. I could not close it down.”
Owen Ravino is one of many volunteers who dedicate themselves to “helping those less fortunate” at Greek’s Playland. Typically, he can be found giving tours on geology and dinosaurs to the visitors of the Stone Museum, also on site.
“It’s all about the kids,” said Ravino, curator of the Stone Museum. “Everything is given from the heart. It is totally dedicated to helping those less fortunate than us. And I like to be able to give back and this makes so many so happy.”
Daniela Donica, 12, and Alex Donic, 8, said they attend Octoberfest every year as volunteers along with their mother.
“We have a friend with a disability and we like to come every year with her,” Daniela said. “It feels good to help out and make them feel good. And it’s really a lot of fun for them.”
“There are so many people here with different kinds of disabilities. They don’t get to do things like this all the time,” Alex added. “I like volunteering to help them.”
Abandoned in a coal bin as a baby, The Greek was raised in Middlesex by Elizabeth Van Fleet, who touched the lives of more than 60 foster children. She taught him and his foster siblings to be “unselfish, charitable and respectful towards religious and racial diversity,” he said.
As a young man, The Greek promised her to always give half of his earnings to charity, specifically, to causes involving the physically and mentally challenged. Three of his foster siblings were mentally challenged, he said. He never wavered from that promise and Greek’s Playland is the culmination.
As he is now in his 80s, The Greek’s attention is turned to ensuring that the parties and Greek’s Playland will go on “forever.”
“I have been very fortunate,” he said. “I started with nothing and I’ll end up with nothing. I want Greek’s Playland to go on forever. I get goose bumps when I see the smiling faces on the kids. This is my whole life.”
For the past few years, The Greek’s dream was in jeopardy. Local developers and township officials saw the 80-plus acres as prime land for residential and commercial projects. The Greek saw it as way of fulfilling the promise and a legacy for the disabled.
After more than six years and $1.5 million, The Greek came up a winner. On Jan. 27, the township’s Board of Adjustment approved a site plan that allows the Playland and the Stone Museum to continue indefinitely. There will be no mini-mansions, strip malls or condominiums on the land The Greek built.
“I was not going to give up until it was approved,” The Greek said. “They (builders) offered me $30 million, but I wanted the Playland to go on forever.”
The space also hosts the Stone Museum and Garden Falls, a reception facility with four banquet halls. Celebrations such as weddings are often held in the rooms the Octoberfest guests used Wednesday. Garden Falls rents from Greek’s Playland and helps offset the costs of the charitable venture. With no biological children of his own, the children who visit his creation are his inheritors.
“We are going to be a true nonprofit soon,” The Greek said proudly. “Everything that happened here is for a reason. This is their place. Everybody is happy and has a great time. You can just feel it. And if I’m gone, it will go on … forever.”
Staff Writer Cheryl Makin: 732-565-7256; email@example.com
At a glance
Greek’s Playland at the Stone Museum is at 608 Spotswood-Englishtown Road in Monroe. It is open to organizations, schools and groups from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from April 15 through Oct. 16 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call 732-521-2232 to arrange for a tour.
The entire site is wheelchair accessible and can be enjoyed rain or shine. Cameras are welcome. Admission is free, with no fees or monetary donations being accepted. Those who work at the Stone Museum and the Playland are all volunteers. Corporate organizations can donate materials to Greek’s Playland Inc.
For more information, go to http://www.gardenfalls.com/greeks_playland-1.html. For more information about Garden Falls, call 732-656-3333.