Wanda Cheeks wants to give children the promise of happy memories at the park—memories she never had. When she was 12, she was kidnapped, assaulted and abandoned near Irwin Park in Spartanburg, S.C. She went on to become a teen mom, burdened with adult responsibilities before fully becoming an adult.
Despite—or maybe in part because of—her troubled childhood, she has dedicated her life to making sure that thousands of children in Spartanburg have a safe place to play. Says Wanda, “I believe that playing is the most important action that a child can do.”
In 2003, she founded Southside Unity in the Community (SSUITC), a nonprofit that promotes volunteerism while providing opportunities for at-risk children. Her first mission was to build a new playground. Though she had once vowed never to return to Irwin Park, with guidance from KaBOOM! and funding from The Home Depot Foundation, Wanda ended up leading hundreds of volunteers in the construction of a new playground there.
Wanda says, “Nobody thought they had the power to be a part of change like that. They thought it was always the city job, the school job, the job of the property manager… They realize they have a voice. I see a lot more people getting involved, taking the roles, stepping up. I’m very proud of those people in my community and I love to see them grow.”
And that was just the beginning. Wanda went on to plan another community-wide playground build at Spartanburg Charter School and helped lead substantial renovations to Priscilla Rumley Park. She also campaigned for Spartanburg to achieve Playful City USA status, and because of her tireless efforts, the city has been named a Playful City USA community for six consecutive years.
“I eat, sleep, and drink playgrounds,” Wanda says. “I never thought blisters could make my heart feel so good!”
Wanda has helped bring play to other southern cities, building seven other playgrounds with KaBOOM! in Atlanta, Charlotte, New Orleans, Orlando, and Washington, DC. She is now back in Spartanburg utilizing our DIY tools on Our Dream Playground to help plan the construction of St. Paul Community Park, which will be accessible to children of all ages and abilities, provide recreation for the elderly, and host community and family events.
Through her tireless efforts, Wanda has become a role model in her community, even winning the 2012 Mary L. Thomas Award for Civic Leadership and Community Change. Community leader Susu Johnson says, “Wanda is a force. One of the things I admire about her is that she doesn’t give up. She has had insurmountable odds that she has surmounted.”
It’s not a life course that Wanda expected, but she has learned to embrace it. “Being a menace as a child and thinking that you have no future or mean anything to anybody,” she says, “and then just seeing the whole world at [my] feet saying what do you want to do Wanda? [That’s when] I saw that I was a leader.”
Photo and video provided by The Spartanburg County Foundation.
What does a stay-at-home mom do when her three boys are home for the summer? That’s the question that Florida mom Tracey Quinn was grappling with back in the summer of 2009, when she found herself facing “83 days of figuring out something for them to do besides watching TV and playing video games.”
On the first day, I decided to take the boys to the nearest neighborhood park. That would at least get us out of the house. While they were enjoying the playground, it occurred to me that I should challenge myself, and my kids, to get out each day and… document our excursions.
On the second day:
We packed a cooler and headed to the next-nearest city park, which we had never visited before. My kids were having so much fun, I practically had to beg them to leave. I decided to up the ante on the previous day’s challenge: Could we not only get out of the house, but visit a new park each day? Surely we could find 81 more parks within driving distance from our house.
Tracey, who lives in the Playful City USA community of Safety Harbor, was able to find 59 playspaces within a 25-mile radius. She says, “OK, so we took a few breaks… But ‘The Great Park Pursuit’ certainly got us out of the house, and the kids looked forward to a new challenge each day.”
The so-called Great Park Pursuit didn’t stop there. When Tracey shared her summer adventures with KaBOOM!, we liked the idea so much that we decided to challenge parents across the country to do the same. For three years now, the KaBOOM! Summer Playground Challenge has asked families to get outside with their kids and while they’re at it, to document the playgrounds they visit on our crowd-sourced Map of Play.
Tracey and her boys have now spent four consecutive summers exploring playgrounds. In the process, they have visited and mapped every publicly accessible playground in Safety Harbor and traveled all over Pinellas County to find new places to play. Our all-time champion mapper, Tracey has added 132 playgrounds to our Map of Play and a staggering 1,399 photos!
Because of Tracey’s tireless efforts, KaBOOM! can now map Play Deserts in Pinellas County – that is, areas that are child-rich but playground-poor. Her data is vital to helping us figure out where more playgrounds need to be built.
Meanwhile, Tracey’s boys have reaped the physical, social, and cognitive benefits of summers full of rigorous outdoor play. But they are growing up fast. Tracey says:
What I've learned… is that kids don't stay young very long and to appreciate every day with them. Although most playgrounds are "recommended" for up to 12 years old… my oldest [son’s] feet touch the ground while holding most monkey bars. As he continues to "grow up" both physically and emotionally, I know that spending summers together at playgrounds will eventually come to an end.
Maybe, Tracey muses, she can map basketball courts next?
In 2011, Tracey and her boys revisited one of the first playgrounds they went to and re-posed for a photo, showing how much they had grown in just two years.
We say, "It starts with a playground," and Eureka, Calif. resident Ruth Robertson (pictured at right) is here to attest that a playground is indeed only the beginning. Ruth first got involved with KaBOOM! in 2008 when she found out that we were helping to build a playground in the park across her street. Here, in Ruth's words, is what happened next:
“When our councilmember got with KaBOOM!, he invited the community out to a meeting about it. I attended with my son, and that’s the first time in my life when I was actually included in something in my community.
I came out to the Design Day, joined the planning committee. I was like, 'What do you need?' I was there. On Build Day, I was the concrete team Build Captain—I volunteered for that because no one else would. That build changed my life—I got involved in my community.
I went on to volunteering... political campaigning in some of the roughest areas of Eureka. I knocked on doors in these really rough parts of town, but I saw all aspects of life, I saw poverty, I saw single parents not having a place to go to play... for them to then come to Hammond Park—the second most used park in Eureka—that’s like 15 blocks away, but they walk it!
Two years later I organized Spruce Up Hammond Park Day—man, the city resisted and resisted and then I finally we just did it, had a 100 volunteers show up, and we re-painted, planted trees, it was great... just great! To see people walk by, stop and volunteer. Other play opportunities often charge for recreation but this place was free and for all of us.
When you see kids coming from broken homes, they don’t have a choice… they can’t be instrumental in change but when you see that people care enough to say, ‘We wanna make a difference,’ when you give them a safe place to play, it speaks volumes. It tells them you can do whatever you want.”
Volunteers are hard at work on 'Spruce Up Hammond Park Day.'
"My son's school (ATCPS) in Sacramento, Calif., received one of your playgrounds earlier this year. For the last year and a half since the school opened, (was originally a high school), my son and his school-mates only had a few basketball hoops and a soccer field to play on. He would come home and be so upset because he missed the playground he had at his old school.
He kept telling us how when ATCPS would get the new playground, he'd be able to climb to the top and be the best at the monkey bars. Well, just the other day, he came home extremely excited because he was able to make it all the way across in the bars.
I think to him, it was the best day of his life so far. All I can say is THANK YOU! for bringing joy to my son and the rest of the school. I know they are a happier bunch!"
– Theresia Mayer, Sacramento, CA
Play it forward with a donation today to help more kids like Theresia’s son learn about the joy of making it all the way across the monkey bars!
"In 2007, we were notified that our playground no longer met safety codes. It was made of wood that had been treated with arsenic. Even though it was the heart of our co-operative community (and the whole world to the kids) it had to be removed. We were broken hearted.
After a recession that left us close to bankruptcy, we could simply not afford to replace it. But I had to find a way to get the kids a playground. I heard about KaBOOM! and sent in an application. After several months had gone by, we got a call from the KaBOOM! staff to tell us we had been chosen. They had found a sponsor and were going to help us build a new playground. It was like winning the lottery!
When it rains, it pours, which is exactly what happened the day and night before our build day, leaving a thick sloppy field of mud, approximately 6" to a foot deep. I was panicked that we wouldn't be able to build, that volunteers would take one look at the mud and bolt - but I was wrong. People did leave, but only to go home to get boots and then come right back.
At the end of the day, the mud made the end result that much sweeter. The feeling we got from the accomplishment, the feeling the kids got from knowing they were involved, it was so much more - it was like a barn raising! After Build Day people were genuinely nicer to each other. Parents hung out on our new benches while their children played together. Since the kids were involved in building it, they take amazing care of the playground. What would we have done without KaBOOM!?"
– Jackie O’Hearn, Brampton, ON
Jackie helped lead her community to replace a playground and bring the heart of their housing co-operative back.
Play it forward with a donation today, so we can continue building hearts of communities.