LEOMINSTER — Marie Fortuna’s voice was filled with emotion when she spoke about her beloved late son at the dedication for the skate park named in his memory.
“Looking out at this park named after my son but for the whole community fills my heart with joy,” she said at the May 6 ribbon cutting for the long awaited and eagerly anticipated Frankie Fortuna Memorial Skatepark with her husband Jerry and daughter Tabitha Cardona by her side. “I can’t possibly thank everybody.”
Members of Frankie’s family including his parents and grandmother, sister Tabitha and her husband, and nieces Amira and Ariana Cardona were joined by friends, skateboarding enthusiasts of all ages, and the many community members who gathered to celebrate the completion of the brand-new skate park on Johnson Street that was made possible through a monumental collaborative effort that reached far and wide.
Recreation Department Director Lisa Comeau spoke to the large crowd and noted that there were a lot of people and organizations involved that helped “to make this vision a reality,” including the state Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities Grant Program, recreation department staff, the team at city hall, the six-member Frankie Fortuna Memorial Skatepark Committee, former longtime recreation director Judy Sumner, those who generously donated towards funding the project, and many more.
Marie Fortuna also had a whole list of people to thank including her family, their close-knit circle of friends and her son’s friends, all the donors, the Brady family, who “slung burgers and chicken with us at fundraisers,” and “those who are no longer with us,” including Acid Reign owner Frank Maggio, who passed away in March.
She mentioned how the Fitchburg skateboard shop owner offered to help with the many skatepark fundraisers that were held over the years before he even knew the family.
“He ended up becoming a really good friend,” Marie said of Maggio. “I know he and Frankie are up in heaven driving that crazy van of his.”
Frankie’s mom went on to talk about her son, a Leominster High School graduate who died on Nov. 17, 2015, at the age of 19 after being struck by a hit and run driver on Mechanic Street, and how much he would love the skatepark — and that if he was there, he would have said “dude, hell yeah,” which drew laughter from the crowd.
A devoted skateboarder, Frankie frequented the skate park on Johnson Street. Following his death, his family decided to raise funds to completely revamp the park in his memory and the city, recreation department, committee, and others got involved to help.
“When my son was killed, I saw a whole community of care … even those I didn’t know reached out,” Marie said while fighting back tears. “The injustice of the whole tragedy was difficult, but doing these events with family and friends, especially Frankie’s friends, was the best part of it.”
She talked about having a stroke after Frankie died and how her family has stuck by her side through thick and thin.
“I’m sure I have given him many reasons to leave but he hasn’t,” she quipped about her husband before noting “how much I appreciate and love” their daughter Tabitha, one of Frankie’s siblings.
Young children, tweens, teens, and young adults and adults enjoyed shredding on the various skatepark elements and flying around the pump track on bikes while the gathering took place, pausing every now and then to take it all in and pose for photos.
“This is Deano Mazzarella, who lived up the street,” Mazzarella said with a smile of growing up in the neighborhood. “There was no place for kids to play back then.”
He praised the Fortuna family for turning their grief into action, saying “you could have been in a state of mourning forever,” and thanked everyone involved who made the skate park possible.
“A bunch of people decided to get together and do something good. People rallied and got behind something positive and brought us all together.”
Mazzarella gave a shoutout to city grant writer Wendy Wiiks, noting the $248,000 state grant received for the project came through because of her efforts and that “this brings us to $5 million in grants Wendy has gotten for the parks in the city.”
“It is a really cool place, I think Frankie would be very happy,” Mazzarella said of the park as he presented a citation to the Fortuna family making the opening official.
The remainder of the $400,000 in total funding needed for the project came from many community fundraisers held over the years and a GoFundMe, which brought in thousands of dollars in donations. A huge boost came in April of 2021 when The Skatepark Project, skateboarding star Tony Hawk’s foundation, made a $10,000 donation towards the effort.
“It’s so nice to see it visually,” Sumner said of the finished product. “It all worked out and it feels really nice.”
She noted that the American Ramp Company from Missouri, the same business that built the previous skate park, bid on and were awarded the project.
“They did a fabulous job,” Sumner expressed, adding that it took “years and years of emails” back and forth to make it happen. “They were the ones that followed through.”
Members of the hardworking Frankie Fortuna Memorial Skatepark Committee were also on hand to mark the occasion. When all was said and done, well over 1,000 hours went into planning the project by the committee members – co-chairs Jeff Ardinger and Steve Snay along with Haily Brady, Taylor Clark, John Lind, and Ryan Martin – as well as recreation department liaisons Sumner and then Recreation Department Assistant Director Nick Abruzzi.
Snay conveyed that when they put out a survey in February of 2021 to gather feedback from the community as far as the design and what elements people wanted to see at the skatepark, they reached their response limit within just a few days.
“That has never happened,” he said of the epic response to the survey. “When we drive by and see kids enjoying it, it’s awesome.”
He said the committee, through is creation by the recreation department, “was designed to create a manageable representation of the potential users of a skatepark, thus we had boarders, bikers, both BMX and mountain, scooterers, and weighed every decision for features for all non-motorized wheeled activities. This committee represented a good selection of our community, and we are so proud it came to fruition.”
Haily Brady, who grew up with Frankie Fortuna and whose brother was his best friend, got close to Frankie’s parents after he died.
As she noted that “the timing was absolutely perfect” when it came to completing the skatepark, Marie Fortuna sat on a bench nearby and chatted with a steady stream of people, including a woman who gave her a piece of the blue ribbon that had been cut after others had taken some pieces of it as a remembrance.
The large herd of skateboarders and bikers gathered along the top of the pipe and everyone else who came to the ribbon cutting, including the Fortuna family, sat on the elements below it and posed for a large group photo.
An adult skater watching nine-year-old Kairi Stanbrook shred the pump track on her skateboard commented “she’s really good!” She and her parents drove an hour and a half from their home in Hull to be there for the grand opening of the park and so she could try it out.
“We heard about this park being built and were excited to come,” said her mom Yoshino Stanbrook, with her dad Chris Stanbrook chiming in “it’s got something for everyone. Not many parks have a pump track on top of the other elements.”
When asked what she enjoys most about skateboarding and doing it at the Frankie Fortuna Memorial Skatepark, Kairi said she liked that there was both a park section and a pump track.
“It’s fun and you don’t have to do what other people do, you can do your own style. I love airing.”
It was clear watching the Fortuna family how proud and happy they were that the park was finally complete after years in the making. When she spoke earlier in the day, Marie Fortuna emphasized that she doesn’t necessarily feel like she’s “brave or strong,” she simply wants what any mom who has lost a child aches for.
“I just wanted to prove that my son’s life mattered.”