Jeanelle Cross was the kind of teacher other teachers aspired to be.
“Jeanelle was beloved by everyone,” said Jackie Grace, principal of Roxboro Road Elementary in Mattydale, where Cross was the resource teacher. “She clearly loved her job and loved what she was doing. She loved kids. She was such a joy to be around, such a positive force.”
Cross lost her battle with breast cancer in September of 2012, not long after she initiated an effort to construct a new playground at RRE. When the school dedicated that finished playground on June 23, they did so in her memory.
The original playground was built when the school was completed in 1956. Though it’s seen several upgrades since then, it had gotten to the point where it could no longer accommodate RRE’s students. The school itself underwent significant renovations in the early 2000s. When those were completed, the school was an entire wing larger, and the North Syracuse Central School District redistricted, giving RRE more than 200 additional students.
“With this increase in our student population, our transient population, and our continually growing class sizes, the current playground is too small to accommodate the approximate 650-plus students we now have in our building,” said Courtright, third grade teacher at RRE, member of the RRE Parent-Teacher Group (PTG) and chairperson of the RRE Playground Committee. “At the end of the day, when many of our teachers choose to have their recess time, our playground is often overcrowded. Despite the supervision of our teachers around the playground area, the continued safety of our students has become a concern due to the limited space being used for this exercise and recreation area. Teachers often worry about having our younger kindergarten through second grade students with the older third and fourth grade students during this time period, and at times some even take their classes back inside because of the number of students on the playground.”
Grace said Cross was the driving force behind raising the money for the new structure.
“She was the one that saw the need for another playground, because we had outgrown the one we had,” Grace said. “She became an active member with our Parent-Teacher Group, and she took on the goal or the vision for a fundraiser called Run for Rox. She collaborated with our special area teachers and solicited their help and support and let them know what she needed them to do. They all took it on their own and organized it really well, but Jeanelle was the force behind it.”
After her passing, the school community was determined to make her vision a reality.
“When we lost her, when she passed away, we decided there was no way we would let her dream die, because we loved her,” Grace said. “It was a statement of the kind of person she was to this building that we kept her dream alive. For her, we made it happen.”
“Everybody’s efforts were in her memory,” said school psychologist Rosanne Ferrara, who was close to Cross. “We all love and miss her, so we did something wonderful in her memory.”
And both Grace and Ferrara believe Cross would be thrilled with the final product. The new playground includes climbing obstacles, balance beams, parallel bars, pull-up bars and more to encourage exercise and fitness. It’s handicapped-accessible, and it falls in line with New York state’s Common Core standards for physical fitness.
Ferrara said it took the school about three years to raise the money for the new structure. They broke ground last month.
““With the rain and everything, it took a little while,” Ferrara said. “We ordered the playground equipment in the fall and it’s been in storage over the winter. We were just able to get it out. The construction was officially completed Friday, just in time for the dedication on Monday.”
The playground isn’t the first place to bear Cross’s name; Grace said the conference room at the school is also named for her.
“Her love for us and ours for her is etched in various places around the building,” she said. “There’s a wonderful quote about how when you leave this world, you should leave it with your name one something. That means you’ve lived your life in a way that people will remember you.”
Both women believed Cross would be happy to see her vision come to fruition.
“She loved working with children. She would be so happy to see them have this brand new playground and know that she was a part of it,” Ferrara said. “Jeanelle was a nurturer. She was a caregiver. This playground is one more extension of her taking care of the kids at Roxboro.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.