Baylor senior Lucie Merkatz, a boarding student from New York City, has been at Baylor for less than two years but has already embraced the school's mission to make a positive difference in the world.
Last year, as a junior, Merkatz founded 50 Red Swings, a non-profit whose vision is to encourage inclusivity beginning at a young age, by making playgrounds across the USA more accessible for children with special needs. The organization's mission is to place at least one swing in each of America's 50 states that is adaptive to those children.
Growing up with an uncle with severe autism, Merkatz was always comfortable around those with special needs and began volunteering with children with challenges when she was in junior high school. A summer course in adaptive engineering at Vanderbilt, which included a trip to a completely adaptive playground inspired her even further.
"After that, I wanted to write my college essay about the need for adaptive playgrounds," recalls Merkatz. "I talked to my parents and they suggested I actually do something instead of just writing an essay about it. I first thought of just putting a swing in New Jersey where Uncle Ricky lived, but again, my parents urged me to aim a little higher. So, I set the goal for getting a swing in all 50 states. I remembered an adaptive swing at a playground near my home when I was younger, and it was red, so I called my idea 50 Red Swings."
Merkatz set out by building the 50 Red Swings website, mailing letters to raise funds, and writing a grant proposal. Although she was not awarded the grant, Merkatz says she received valuable feedback, advice, and experience from the UNFoundation.
When she had enough funds in hand, Merkatz had the first swing installed in Woodland Park, N.J. After some shopping around, Merkatz chose the Jenn Swing, a full body swing that is usable by toddlers and school-aged children up to 125 pounds, which happens to come in fire engine red.
Meanwhile, back in Chattanooga, Baylor's director of community service Elin Bunch '09 got involved by connecting Merkatz with administrators at Big Ridge Elementary school in Hixson, who were happy to have a swing installed on their school's playground (pictured above). She also found a contractor who offered to do the installation at no charge (see more photos here).
Two more swings have since been installed at playgrounds in Bluffton, S.C., where Merkatz used to attend summer camp.
"My next goal is to reach out to people to see if they might want a swing and can help raise funds for it, especially at places where the support for the swing is already available," Merkatz says, noting that it is much easier and less expensive when the swing can be installed on an existing swing set. "That way, the kids get to play next to the others, which I think is important."
Merkatz is hoping to study organizational behavior in college and although she is not looking for a full-time non-profit career, she hopes to be part of a business that is involved in philanthropy. She also hopes that another Baylor student will stay connected with 50 Red Swings after she graduates in June.
"Play has a great impact on a kid's health and development and should be inclusive. Swinging is something I always did as a kid. It is easy and freeing; everyone can do it," smiles Merkatz. "But not everyone can fit in a swing or sit upright and comfortably in a swing. It's so hard for some kids if they don't have the proper equipment."
Thankfully, those kids have Lucie Merkatz on their side.