Nearly every member of a community in New Mexico’s Navajo Nation came together to help build a playground not only to improve the lives of the 2,800 children who live there, but also, perhaps, to save them. The town of Thoreau, located about 100 miles west of Albuquerque in the red mesas of northwestern New Mexico, has been coping with a high suicide rate, ranging anywhere from nine to 29 per year—a big portion for a town with a population of less than 2,000.
In addition to the high suicide rate, “unemployment rates are very high, poverty is the norm, and physical isolation is a major problem,” says Trudi Griffin, the principal at St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School, a private, tuition-free Catholic school in the community. St. Bonaventure reached out to KaBOOM! for help building a place for children to play.
Studies have shown play and physical activity is essential for the overall health, well-being, and happiness of children. According to the most recent issue of the American Journal of Play, “The decline of children’s play time has led to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self-control.” A recent quantitative study from Insight Strategy Group, commissioned by KaBOOM!, with the support of the Mattel Children’s Foundation, reports that parents and children both see play as a way to relax and get rid of stress. And for good reason—sometimes the most important thing to remember about play is its simplest definition: play is fun.
For this struggling community, a playground seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.
To get the process started, St. Bonaventure took the initiative, filling out the application. But local parents also got involved. “Children have no place safe to play during the summer,” and “There is no place for young children to go to stay out of trouble,” parents wrote in letters to KaBOOM!. The final piece of the puzzle was put into place when Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico (BCBSNM) stepped up to fund the playground, to “help New Mexico stay healthy,” said a rep from BCBSNM on the day the playground was built.
Together, the community, KaBOOM! and BCBSNM assembled the 2,500 square foot playspace that features more than 2,000 ways for kids ages 2–12 to engage both physically and mentally. The site features slides, swings and learning panels, and can accommodate up to 60 kids at once. Parents and other adults can stand in shade cover, sit on benches or gather at picnic tables nearby while kids play—all elements that were built alongside the playground with the help of volunteers from the community.
In June 2013, the playground was ready for action. In addition to a bright new space, the playground signifies something larger to the town. Chris Halter, Executive Director of St. Bonaventure says, “This playground means hope, it means excitement, it means blessing for all these children.”
We hope this playground brings joy to the children and the adults of Thoreau for years to come.
Fifteen years ago, California resident Jim Roberts had no idea that he would be crowned Napa Valley’s ‘Playground King.’ “I had an office supply store for 35 years,” he says. “What do I know about playgrounds?”
Jim had retired from his business and was volunteering as an academic mentor at a school in a low-income neighborhood. One day, he stopped by the principal’s office and found her terribly upset. A student had just fallen off a piece of equipment on the school playground and suffered a concussion.
“We went out to look at the playground,” Jim says, “and I saw a cement curb only two feet away from the equipment. I could tell this wasn’t safe. I said, this has got to be replaced, this is terrible.”
The principal happened to have a catalog from the playground equipment company Landscape Structures in her filing cabinet. They began poring over the catalog and Jim soon enlisted the help of Landscape Structures to come up with a plan. When Jim took the plan to the school’s Board of Directors, they proposed that he and his local Kiwanis club build the playground.
Jim says, “We dug in, and we got that playground down. It was sprinkling the whole time, but we didn’t care. A part was missing and we had to race out and get it, but we got the playground together and saved the school a lot of money.”
Jim was in his early 70s then. Now, at age 86, he has 58 playground builds under his belt, with three more in the works. “The Kiwanis club here is just incredible,” Jim says, “they just roll up their sleeves and chip in. On five different occasions, we’ve built two playgrounds in the same weekend. We’ve even had members join the club just because they wanted to help build playgrounds.”
Most of these playground builds have taken place at Napa Valley schools. Jim believes that playgrounds are a vital asset to a school community. “The kids just can’t sit there and study all the time, they wouldn’t hear anything after a while, they’d just turn off,” he says. “It’s important for them to get out and get fresh air, and have a challenging, fun, colorful playground. When they get out of class, they RACE, they RACE to that playground.”
It’s important for Jim that the playgrounds offer elements of challenge so children can learn and push themselves both inside and outside the classroom. Thinking back to his own childhood, Jim says, “I learned nothing on the playground. When I went to school, all we had was a turning bar. I remember digging holes in the ground and playing marbles. I want to provide for these kids what I didn’t have.”
He continues to be amazed by the challenges that children will rise to when given the opportunity. “Like overhead bars, for instance,” he says. “My daughter was a principal, and she said, I want this for the kindergarten, and it was an overhead structure. I thought the kids were too small, but we put in the structure, and now these tiny little kids are going hand over hand, whipping across the thing!”
Of course, children need a safe place to play both inside and outside of school. Luckily, the schools in Napa Valley keep their playgrounds open to the surrounding community outside of school hours. “When the school builds a playground, that’s recreation for the whole neighborhood,” Jim says. “I pass by some of the playgrounds on a Saturday, and all kinds of kids are there with their parents doing this or that.”
A recipient of multiple Let’s Play Completion Grants from KaBOOM!, Jim acknowledges that the hardest part of building a playground is coming up with the funds. Beyond that, all it takes is a can-do spirit and a hardworking group of volunteers. The community build model that Jim has helped to popularize across the Napa Valley has not only saved the county over a million dollars—which they have used to invest in other park projects—but has helped the community feel more invested in the end product.
As Jim can attest, the “end product” is not just a collection of colorful equipment. “It’s a hub for the whole neighborhood,” he says. “A magnet for kids, doing something safe, good, and healthy; learning and challenging themselves; and most importantly, having fun.”
Children intuitively understand the importance of engaging in active play, every single day. While they may not be able to rationalize the cognitive, physical, and emotional benefits of play, they know that play makes them feel happier, helps them let off steam, and gives them a chance to be with friends.
Throughout the history of the play movement, some children have worked extra hard in the name of the play. The stories of these young play heroes will make you smile, if not jump for joy:
In 1995, a seven-year-old girl named Ashley Brodie was instrumental in planning and fundraising for the first KaBOOM! community playground build. A resident of Livingston Manor, the housing complex in Southeast DC where the playground would be built, Ashley had been looking at the empty lot outside her window for months and sketching designs for the playground she hoped to build there. When she met KaBOOM! founder and CEO Darell Hammond and learned about plans to transform the lot into a place to play, she immediately jumped in to help, slipping fliers under neighbors’ doors and walking around to neighborhood restaurants to put donation canisters on the counters. She also personally collected $9.97 in pennies. As the build date commenced, she asked permission to stay home from school so she could help the volunteers and watch her longtime dream come to life.
> Read our new children’s book inspired by Ashley's story, My Dream Playground.
When Alex Griffith of Forest Hill, Md. learned that the playground at the hospital where he was born was in severe disrepair, he took it upon himself to build a new one. Adopted from Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Alex said, "Russia is part of me and this hospital is part of me. They gave me life, so I [wanted] to give back to them, to give them a fun place to play.” Alex spent six months researching the existing playground, then proposed the idea for his Eagle Scout Project. To get support, he sold candy, put on a car show, launched a letter writing campaign, went to local business meetings, and forged relationships with Rotary International and various adoption groups. Alex designed the playground himself, incorporating the red white, and blue colors of both the Russian and American flags. Finally in August 2009, more than two years after committing to the project, Alex traveled to Krasnoyarsk to help bring the design to life, and to celebrate his 16th birthday with the grand opening of his playground.
Last summer, a year before Detroit formally declared bankruptcy, a nine-year-old boy named Joshua Smith decided he wanted to help his struggling hometown. He sold lemonade and popcorn in front of his house in the hopes of raising at least $1,000 to improve the city’s parks. Not only did he end up far exceeding his fundraising goal, but his story caught the attention of Kevin Cook, an executive from playground manufacturing company Playworld Systems. The company surprised Joshua on his birthday with plans to build a $50,000 play structure at a nearby park. When Joshua heard the news, he said, “I feel really great!” And so he should!
In spring of 2012, when a city council in Canterbury, UK announced plans to build housing on Kingsmead field, neighborhood kids painted enormous signs to protect their beloved playspace. Orla and Timmy, ages 10 and 11 respectively, attended a city council meeting to take a stand. Orla said: "It's not just for me and my friends but for all the people of the area who live and breathe better because there is a lovely empty green field nearby." Said Timmy: “Often in the evenings, I go to the field and play football with my dad and brother. It's very easy to stay indoors and watch TV or play computer games. Please leave our field alone." Over a year later, they are still fighting the good fight.
In 2010, students at Mount Washington Elementary in Louisville, Ky. prepared a report for a class project to convince school administrators to lengthen recess time. They researched the importance of physical activity and compared their recess time—10 minutes—to that of other schools in the district. When the students presented their findings, the school council discovered that it wasn't enforcing its own wellness policy, and extended recess to meet the recommended minimum of 15 minutes. Perhaps a future class can lobby to exceed to minimum!
Do you know any extraordinary children who have gone the extra mile to spread the joy of play?
No dogs allowed? No kids allowed? When it comes to play spaces, dog owners and parents sometimes find themselves at odds. Not so at Jefferson Elementary School in Playful City USA community Missoula, Montana, where a new “barrier-free” playground includes a space for the city’s many dogs (and their owners) to play.
But Scout doesn’t just play at Jefferson; he has a job to do. A four year-old English Lab, Scout serves as an assistant to Nancy Jo Connell, a speech-language pathologist with the Missoula County Public Schools district. Nancy Jo enlists Scout’s help to work with students to overcome communicative difficulties, autism, and emotional or physical problems, in a process known as animal-assisted therapy.
Before the new barrier-free playground was constructed, Nancy Jo and Scout had been working with students inside the classroom. Nancy Jo has since found that the new outdoor play space is expanding Scout’s therapeutic potential.
Being out on the playground, she says, allows the kids to release steam and reduce stress. It also adds a social dimension to the therapy sessions, since the children participating in therapy can invite their peers on the playground to come play with Scout.
A favorite outdoor activity is grooming Scout, which helps to increase children’s coordination and fine motor skills. For some, especially those on the autism spectrum, the pet grooming process can be calming. Other favorite play activities with Scout, including hide-and-seek and fetch, increase physical activity and motivate students to learn language commands like “fast, slow, and stop.”
In fact, one boy with autism uttered his very first words at school while playing fetch with Scout. The boy tossed the ball multiple times, watching Scout retrieve it, but after one toss, Nancy Jo gave Scout the signal to stay. Expecting the dog to get the ball, the boy finally shouted, “Go!” When he went home that night, he pointed to a copy of Clifford the Big Red Dog, and turning to his mother, said, “Puppy.”
As Scout demonstrates, dogs and kids can not only play “nice,” but dogs with the right training and disposition can actually help children with special needs reduce stress, bridge social divides, and improve their fine motor and language skills. Something as simple as a game of fetch can lead to developmental breakthroughs.
Could dogs like Scout become a fixture at other school and public playgrounds? After all, innovation doesn’t have to mean elaborate new-fangled play structures. It can simply mean opening the playground gates to something we already have.
Photo courtesy of Jefferson Early Learning Center.
Not all problems are hard to solve. In Detroit, one of the most formidable barriers to play is overgrown grass.
Enter Tom Nardone (pictured right), a do-gooder but no goodie-goodie. Founder and Gang Leader of the Detroit Mower Gang, Tom and his motley crew of “renegade landscapers” are taking action. Rather than wring their hands, they realized that they have the tools they need—namely, mowers, trimmers, lawn tractors, and muscles—to transform Detroit’s deteriorating parks.
After all, no one wants to visit a playground if they have to wade through grass to get to the swings. An abandoned playground becomes vulnerable to vandalism and crime, launching a vicious cycle that can change the entire character of a neighborhood.
Tom, a father of three, started the Mower Gang in 2010, shortly after Mayor Dave Bing proposed closing 77 city parks, leaving thousands of kids without a place to play. At the time, Tom was coaching one of his son’s soccer teams, but he wanted to give more back to the community. “I have to do something that fits me,” he thought.
He started out small. He bought a used lawn tractor for $250 and, he says, “I would go out to parks and I would mow under the swing sets. I mean, this [was] not rocket science… I would just go out there and spend an afternoon, I wouldn’t schedule it… I’d just have two hours free from work, throw the thing in the back of the truck, go, come back, and go back to work. It was good.”
When he found an overgrown velodrome (a bicycle racing track, pictured below at left) at Dorais Playground, he wanted to restore it, but he knew he needed help. He created a Facebook page and started inviting people to show up. “I thought to myself if one person, if one guy shows up to this thing, it would be great,” says Tom. Aside from his brother and coworker, “one guy showed up. Guess what his name was? His name was Guy! I wanted one guy, I got a Guy.”
From its humble beginnings, the Mower Gang has steadily grown—and its work doesn’t stop at mowing. The gang meets every other week at a different park, usually attracting about 20 volunteers. In 2011, they held a “road rally,” which included a scavenger hunt to collect information about 90 of Detroit’s parks and determine areas of need. Realizing that many playgrounds in Detroit had swing sets, but no swings, the Mower Gang began a project on Kickstarter to replace 40 of the city’s 200+ missing swings. They aimed to raise a modest $800 and ended up with $3,020. The Gang also received a Let’s Play Maintenance grant from KaBOOM! to help purchase new playground surfacing.
This past Memorial Day weekend, 70 weed-whacking, grass-hacking volunteers gathered to tackle 12 parks in 24 hours as part of the first annual Mowtown Mowdown. “People love a good deed and nobody spends the night in a Detroit park. We were just crazy enough to do both,” Tom says.
Even though Tom has attracted major media attention for his work, including two appearances on the Conan show, he remains humble about his work. He might just be a guy with a lawn mower, he says, but “something is greater than nothing.”
And that something can mean quite a lot for a child. "The park is one of the bright moments in childhood," Mower Gang member Andy Didorosi says. "You learn there, you play there, that’s your jam. And if your park is dangerous, overgrown or unusable, well ..."
Tom says, “What I get out of it is every time we do the swing sets, every time we do the play places, there’s always kids that come out. It never fails that you see the result right away.”
Photos via the Detroit Mower Gang's Facebook page.
When six-year-old Jadon Gotay (now seven) was given a class project to help a nonprofit, he knew he wanted to help an organization that did “fun things for kids.” After asking around, he found KaBOOM! and was immediately smitten.
What does Jadon love about the playground? Most importantly that it’s outside. “I love being outside,” he says. He also loves to “play tag, go on the swings, and climb all the stuff at the playground. There’s always new stuff to do and try.”
To help bring play to kids who aren’t able to spend as much time at the playground, Jadon organized a raffle fundraiser that asked people to guess how many Legos were in a jar. He raised over $500. With the help of his mom, Neida, he also organized a local play day (pictured below) in his hometown of Orlando to get his friends and neighbors out to the playground.
When asked how she makes sure that Jadon gets enough time to play, Neida says: “I’m a big believer in letting kids be kids. As a working mom I make sure that he is enrolled in after-school programs that promote play. Our weekends consist of being with the kids and doing fun stuff as a family. We look for new parks and playgrounds in town and make it a priority to try them out.”
Jadon says that play is important because “it’s important to stay active and not be bored all day.” His mom adds that play “helps build imagination, social skills, and even problem-solving skills.” Which is all true—though when it comes down to it, Jadon likes to play for the same reason as children around the world and throughout history have always liked to play: “Because it’s fun.”
Unfortunately, as Jadon has learned, some children are missing out on the fun. We need more kids like him to help bring the fun back to childhood.
How many Legos do you think are in the jar? Give Jadon some words of encouragement and make your own guess!
Update 8/29: When we last checked in with Ed Barker in April, he had recently completed his 50th playground build with KaBOOM!, but Ed certainly wasn’t satisfied with reaching the half-century mark. In only a few months, he added 10 builds to his tally and has now participated in an incredible 60 KaBOOM! playground builds!
Ed’s unwavering passion and determination to help give kids the childhood they deserve by bringing play to those who need it most also resulted in another milestone: the Points of Light Institute recognized his incredible commitment by naming Ed as the Daily Points of Light Award honoree on Aug. 29. Ed impressed the team at Points of Light so much that they even wrote this feature story about him!
Keep up the great work, Ed!
We always say that volunteering on a KaBOOM! playground build is a “feel-good” experience, and for Ed Barker (at right), that feeling has lasted not just for six hours, but for over six years. A self-described “KaBOOM! volunteer addict,” Ed recently participated in his 50th playground build. He has worked alongside more than 10,000 volunteers, bringing play to 27,500 children in need.
During volunteer appreciation month, we want to take a moment to honor Ed’s inspiring contributions to our cause, and to find out what keeps him coming back. Here’s what Ed has to say:
My real job is for Fannie Mae. I’m a Senior Account Manager – I visit banks, mortgage companies, and credit unions and buy up their loan portfolios. Fannie in turn will securitize all the collective purchases so they can provide capital for more home loans. It’s a circular community reinvestment, so we can put as many people in homes as possible.
That’s actually what attracted me most to the playground builds. What I do day to day, I visit the banks, visit the people in suits just like me, but I never get to see the smiles on the borrower’s faces as they sign the loan documents, or when the bank hands them the keys.
I do get to see that on the playground. The fulfillment piece comes at the very end, when you’re with the people you worked side by side with all day long. You see the smiles on their faces as they see what was accomplished and I especially enjoy the joy on the kids’ faces when they see their new playground. It sounds kind of corny, but it really is cool and validates all the hard work.
There are other benefits, too. I can’t tell you the number of times when I see people who are neighbors but who have never met one another, and who are friends by the end of the day. Really, it’s the playground creating a community rather than the community creating a playground.
The build that sticks out most in my memory is actually the first build I participated in. Fannie Mae was sponsoring five builds in one day in New Orleans the year after Katrina hit. Fannie put their sales meeting down in New Orleans so they could have half the company on site to build playgrounds.
Initially, my main goal for the trip was just to have fun, but I was curious what had really happened during the hurricane. I had a cab driver drive me around, and I couldn’t believe how humbling the destruction was. I had a nice hotel back in the French Quarter with all my creature comforts, and there was complete devastation 15 minutes away. The tone of my trip changed from, “I’m here to have fun” to, “I’m here to work and leave something that others are going to have fun on.”
I did work hard, but I had a blast too. The mulch pile must have been two stories high, and there was ridiculous humidity and heat, but I was up there dancing, having a great time. We even got done a half hour early! At the end of the day, the kids were there and I was collecting up tools wearing my silly Build Day hat, and one kids said, “I like your hat.” I said, “You can have it,” and he took out a coin that he had gotten from a Mardi Gras parade float and he said, “Then I want you to have this.” It meant a lot to him to carry it around in his pocket and yet he gave it to me. It meant that much to me that he appreciated my effort that I still carry that coin around with me to this day.
I caught a bug on my first build. I wanted to have that feeling more often. Since then, I’ve been constantly seeking out if I can build a playground during business travel, or use my vacation time; it’s that fulfilling. I also get free T-shirts and hot dogs, so there are some side benefits, I can’t complain!
It’s all about making the world a little better, one playground at a time. I’ve been able influence others – not only coworkers, but some friends, my neighbors, even my family. I help out on Prep Day too, before the build, and they always want to know, “Why would you want to spend 10 hours one day digging holes, coming home covered in mud and stinking and then go right back out the next day?” But once I bring them to a build, they get it.
With each one of these builds, I’ve made at least one really good friend that I stay in touch with. I’m not great on social media but I’m good at picking up the phone and calling people. There are at least 30 people I keep in touch with, and I’ve gone back to some of the towns I’ve volunteered in to visit with them.
The last build I participated in, my 50th, was in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago, with one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. It made me think, “Why are teenagers shooting each other? How did it get like this?” It all starts at the childhood stage. They lost trust in their family, their neighbors, and their community. So you have to rebuild that trust and show them people care. The playground is just a piece of that.
As a volunteer, it gives you a good feeling when you drive past a playground and see kids and families. You see a mom sitting on a bench you helped build that wasn’t there before. It makes you feel good all over again. Being a volunteer is also about rebuilding yourself – find your passion, find what drives you most to benefit others and throw your whole self into it. When I look back on all the projects I have helped complete, I loved them all. But I am more excited about the ones I have yet to complete.
When Portland, Ore. residents Cody and April Goldberg set out to build an inclusive playground for their daughter Harper, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Three years later, with the help of a Let’s Play Construction grant, their community cut the ribbon for Harper’s Playground—a playspace more unique and more beautiful than they ever imagined. The project had come to an end, but a movement was just beginning. Here, Cody shares his story:
Harper Rose Goldberg is the most amazing little girl you’ll ever meet. I’m biased as her dad, but it’s true. At birth she had a small cyst deep in her throat that was blocking more than 70 percent of her airway. She fought for hours to cling to her life while the doctors worked to get an air tube past the blockage.
They eventually diagnosed her with Emanuel syndrome, which explained some other complications and which had her in the hospital for two months. With less than 200 known cases in the world, the doctors knew very little about the syndrome. They told us, “You should expect her to never walk nor talk in her lifetime.” She took her first independent steps at age five. Still, her mobility remains limited and she often uses a walker to get around.
Harper, left, poses in front of her playground construction site with her family.
When Harper was four, my wife and I were at our neighborhood park and realized that her choices were pretty limited. We approached the Portland Parks & Recreation department and asked if they would consider building an inclusive playground. They said they didn’t have the budget, but if we could fundraise, they would help facilitate the project.
One of our main motivators was to help Harper get to know her neighbors. We were becoming increasingly frustrated with the status quo of the “disability world” – particularly after we experienced the exclusion of Harper from our neighborhood school. We were forced to enroll her in a school all the way across town. After that happened, it fueled our fire to get this playground built. When we approached our local neighborhood association (Arbor Lodge) and asked for an endorsement, they not only endorsed the project but also wanted to make it a priority for the neighborhood. That gave us a lot of faith that we were actually going to do it.
I know the parks department didn’t initially think we were going to follow through to get this playground built. But they realized we were serious, and they told us we could either hand the money over to them and they would manage the build, or we could manage the build ourselves for about a third of the cost. I remember thinking, “You’ll let me manage the build? I’m just a dad on a mission.”
Harper's Playground 'before.'
The project took a major 180 degree turn in March 2011 when we visited with a design firm called MIG, Inc. They hosted a design charette along with Girvin Associates, Inc. and members of the Portland Parks Department. The research that MIG, Inc. presented about how design impacts a playground, how children interact with space, and how a properly designed space can encourage collaborative play and cognitive development—it completely blew my mind. Lots of people think that playgrounds are important because they help kids move their legs around and get their bodies moving, but it goes so much deeper.
The design that came out of that meeting was so inspirational, so beautiful, and so paradigm-shifting, I think it helped us attract more major donors. They say to catch bigger fish, use a bigger lure. People were inspired to be part of something that was not only about accessibility but also about better design. For example, many inclusive playgrounds use ramps that lead to a structure, but that limits the choices that kids on wheels get to make. Why not eliminate the structure and create a plaza instead? We began to understand how a more open-ended design and a more natural environment would encourage kids of all abilities to use their imaginations more.
Construction on Harper's Playground begins.
The resulting drawing, which was done by my childhood pal, Todd Girvin, helped us not only secure donors, but also a pro-bono developer, Gerding Edlen; a contractor, Walsh Construction; and an all-important pro-bono landscape design firm to take the concept drawing into construction document phase, PLACE studio. The savings to the project represented by all of these generous firms equals approximately $300,000.
I like to call the fundraising and planning process a modern-day stone soup in action. I’ve always loved that story. We started with nothing, but we had to convince everyone that even if all they had was one carrot, that carrot would help. I had so much passion for the concept, I couldn’t stop talking about it. Everyone I spoke to about the why and the what, I had a new believer who was ready to help.
We were adopted by The Timbers Army, the local supporters group of our Major League Soccer team. They raised just shy of $85,000 for the project. We also received a $75,000 grant from a foundation that happened to be run by a couple we were seated next to at a wedding. There were donations that came in from neighborhood kids who had set-up lemonade stands on our behalf. It was truly a humbling experience. In the end, the total project value was $1.2 million dollars.
Neighborhood children break ground at Harper's Playground.
Now, three years later, we have this awesome “soup” in the middle of our community, and everyone threw some ingredients into it. I go at least three times a day—and of course, Harper is a celebrity there. It’s very difficult to find the words for how gratifying it is to see the playground in action. It was something I was dreaming about for three years. I would close my eyes and imagine it, and it’s actually how I imagined. Because of the new paradigm we established, there’s a broader range of age groups. Neighbors say that children at this new playground play more often and longer. And kids are seeing examples of inclusion that could expand into schools and in the workplace.
Families flock to the completed playground.
We hope this project will serve as a Trojan horse for the inclusion concept. We are working on a vision plan for expansion within Portland and beyond—the sky is the limit in terms of the models we could approach. Harper’s Playground is just the beginning.
Photos courtesy of Cody Goldberg and Kyer Wiltshire.
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!.
For the 12 years that Matt O’Leary has lived in downtown St. Louis, he wished someone would do something about Lucas Park. Littered with needles and trash, the park was known for drinking, drug use, and other unruly behavior. Meanwhile, the 350 children under age six who lived nearby had no place to play.
Eventually Matt got sick of waiting, and he wasn't the only one. When his neighbor Kelly Kelsey found out about our Let's Play construction grants, they decided to join forces to form a nonprofit called Friends of Lucas Park. They recognized that “people feel so strongly about the park not only because of the tremendous negatives the park has brought, but because… Lucas Park could be a tremendous asset that is denied to them, the place where Downtown’s various communities instinctually want to gather and build a sense of community.”
Kelly and Matt promptly got to work. While Matt focused on landscape improvements, Kelly applied for, and received, a Let’s Play construction grant. She rallied her community to raise additional funds, and using our tools on Our Dream Playground, formed a planning committee to organize a done-in-a-day playground build that drew from existing community assets.
On September 8, 2012, an estimated 100 volunteers—including 40 teenagers who showed up unexpectedly asking how they could help—hauled wheelbarrows, shoveled dirt, and assembled equipment, constructing a beautiful new playground in less than 12 hours.
Says Kelly, since the playground build, “The park has gone through a complete transformation – a total 180. Area residents are shocked at the change.” She adds, “I’ve seen so many families in the park that I’ve never seen before. I knew there were more kids in the neighborhood, but they never played outside.”
Friends of Lucas Park know that their work isn’t finished. That’s why at KaBOOM! we say, “It starts with a playground.” The rest of the park remains fenced off until they complete more renovations. The group is also aware that even a brand-new playground could fall into disrepair if not cared for by the surrounding community. They plan to keep neighbors engaged in the maintenance of the playground so that future generations of downtown St. Louis families can enjoy a safe, communal place to play.
Photos courtesy of Friends of Lucas Park.