PORT RICHEY — Maria Rotella had always wanted to buy her two boys a swing set. But something else — car, rent, bills — always seemed to get in the way.
The swing set took on an even lower priority last December when Rotella, 27, learned she had a fast-growing breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. Treatment includes an aggressive chemotherapy regiment.
Rotella, a single mother who had to stop working after her diagnosis, lost the energy to take her sons — Tikal Jordan, 4, and Benicio Jordan, 3 — to the park. She didn't have much to offer them in the yard of their small apartment building, and the rough-and-tumble boys often ended up watching television.
So her mother, Kathy Rotella, and her mother's boyfriend, Jerry Preston, decided to surprise Maria and the boys with their own swing set.
Kathy Rotella saw it as a way to help her daughter keep the boys close without running herself into the ground doing it. Through her living room window, Maria could watch her sons play on a swing set.
"That swing set would be the world to them," said Kathy. "They're used to their mom being fun-loving and happy."
With their own finances tight, Kathy and her boyfriend were trying to do the project on the cheap. Kathy ended up at the Home Depot at Little and Ridge roads in search of wood scraps they could use to help stabilize the shaky A-frame they had put together.
Sylvia McChesney, a sales associate at the store, talked to Kathy and learned about Maria. She saw a photograph of her with the two boys.
"I said, 'Geez,' " McChesney said. " 'Maybe we can do better than that.' "
McChesney put up the family's photograph in the workers' break room. She got a playground kit with the help of donations from other associates as well as donated gift cards from the store. Then about a half-dozen workers volunteered to help assemble the set at the store.
While Maria Rotella and the boys were away on Monday afternoon, McChesney and two of the Home Depot volunteers — all on their day off — arrived at her apartment with the partially assembled playground. They worked with Maria Rotella's brother-in-law and her mother's boyfriend on the project, which included two swings, a slide and a climbing wall.
Finally, two hours and one broken drill bit later, the playground was ready. Then Maria Rotella and the boys arrived home. What they found wasn't what any of them expected.
"Who did this?" said Rotella. "This is perfect."
Tikal and Benicio stood quietly and stared before doing what came naturally: They sprinted toward their new playground.
"Mommy," called Benicio, "push me high!"
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.