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.”
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.