'I can't tell you what a difference the playground has made'


In July 2012, we partnered with Pacific Gas and Electric Company and the Westside Community Improvement Association in Eureka, Calif. to build a playground at a site that was formerly an abandoned schoolyard. Not only are children of all ages flocking to the new playground, but neighbors are getting to know each other, crime is decreasing, and families are biking more and eating better. Here, Eureka resident Heidi Benzonelli (pictured right) tells us how the playground changed everything:

We had a dream—to turn an abandoned public school site into a playground, a park, and a community center. Piece by piece, our dream is becoming reality.

The Jefferson Elementary School closed in 2005 and its facilities went into a state of blight. When it closed, officials took away the playground equipment, installed a chainlink fence around the schoolyard, and put up “No Trespassing” signs. But that didn’t stop kids from playing there. They used to crawl through the fence or pry the gates open to get in. There was no playground, but they were running around the schoolyard and playing with a huge truck tire.

The neighborhood rallied together and we were able to raise enough money and secure financing to obtain ownership of the property. The first thing we did was to open the gates, and the kids and all their brothers and sisters came pouring in. Then we started reaching out for grants and partnerships everywhere. We always knew what we wanted; what we didn’t realize is that if we just got started, the energy would build on itself. One day, kids were pushing a tire around the schoolyard and the next day, PG&E and KaBOOM! came forward with a grant for a new playground.

I can’t tell you what a difference the playground has made. It has been a magnet for everyone to come and bring their kids. Kids now know their neighbors—we’ve restored the community commons. Because they’re there, people rake the wood chips and pick up trash. The playground gives them an opportunity to be of service and give what they can give.

Before, we were having some problems with rival tagging and some of our younger teenagers getting involved in gang activity. A big problem was lack of options. They’d ask themselves, “What are we going to do today?” and then take the path of least resistance of what was available to them. Kids now have a beautiful playground, and what’s available is a place to come and play and be kids. We have no more graffiti, and we’re not seeing the younger kids involved in gang activity. The other thing that’s happened is the parents are stepping up and taking ownership. They’re saying, “This is OUR playground, this is a family thing going on here.” The people who were using the site because it was abandoned are gone – just through self-governance, not signs or rules or threats.

The playground has had an impact on kids of all ages. One of our volunteers has a little boy who’s about two, and before the playground there was no place for her to let him loose. He was always in the stroller. Now he comes to the playground every day—he climbs the climbing wall and goes all the way up to the top of the play structure.

  
Eureka's new playground has inspired community members to come forward and share their gifts, like teaching youth cooking classes. Photos courtesy of The Jefferson Project.

Some of our volunteers, including me, had never been involved in a big community project before. Once you get a taste of it, you want more. Now we’re working on transforming the North building of the school into a community event center and renovating three classrooms for all-age recreation, everything from infant toddlers to teens to older people.  We are renovating the kitchen into a fully permitted commercial kitchen so we can provide healthy nutritious food at all of our events. Kids are getting addicted to fruits and vegetables! An organization called Bicycle Kitchen is teaching kids how to fix bikes, so we’re promoting the health and physical fitness of our community, as well as offsetting greenhouse gases.

Because we now have a volunteer base, when someone comes forward and wants to do something, BOOM! we’re doing it. A lady called recently and said, “Hey, my mom told me what’s going on down there and I’m a dietician. I’m here for a week and I’d like to teach a class.” We were able to email and call a few parents I met from the KaBOOM! build, and about nine kids showed up. Then a guy said he wanted to do a community drum circle, so we gave him the keys. We’re providing an opportunity for people to share their gifts.

We’ve done it. The gates are open. The kids are playing. The community has come together and is hungry to be of service. We’re succeeding. Thank you KaBOOM!.

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