Today, two schools in communities with approximately 2,000 people managed to garner more than 160,000 votes in an online competition to win a $10,000 playground grant from national play non-profit KaBOOM! and NFL PLAY 60. Schools in Ontonagon, Mich. and Brusly, La. both beat out much larger communities by activating passionate online networks and rallying people across the country and around the world to vote for them.
It all started this past September, when KaBOOM! helped 1,200 communities across the country hold Play Days, fun events that brought communities together to improve their local places to play. Then, this past month, five communities that held Play Days, including Arlington, Texas, Tucson, Ariz., and Rex, Ga., were named finalists in an online voting competition to win one of two $10,000 playground improvement grants sponsored by NFL PLAY 60. At first glance, Ontonagon and Brusly appeared to be the underdogs, but both towns quickly activated their networks to take an early lead which has been growing exponentially for the past month. It’s a much-needed win for both communities.
Ontonagon is a town on the tip of the Michigan peninsula with just over 1,500 people. In the 1990s the local copper mine and the shipyard closed down and the community has been losing businesses and jobs ever since. This year, the local paper mill and nursing home shuttered, sending the town’s unemployment rate up to 16.2 percent, and sending residents elsewhere for work.
Brusly is right next door to Baton Rouge, and many of this small town’s residents work at the DOW chemical plant in West Baton Rouge. More than half of the school’s population receives free or reduced price lunch, so money is clearly tight.
While all five finalists tried different tactics to get out the vote, the effort for Brusly and Ontonagon went viral online. Residents began emailing their families, who then emailed their sororities/ fraternities, who then emailed their companies on and on until thousands and thousands of votes started pouring in daily from every state and 86 different countries.
In Ontonagon, school Counselor Kirsten Menigoz has been spearheading the get out the vote effort, but was taken by surprise by the amount of support they’ve received from people she’s never met who don’t live anywhere near Ontonagon. She says “ Residents have been passing along e-mails to their professional and social networks, college students from the area are posting the “get out the vote” message to their facebook accounts and tweeting out daily voting reminders. It’s amazing how it’s taken off.”
Ms. Menigoz thinks that she’s had better luck turning out the votes not in spite of her community’s size, but because of it. “We’re all pretty tight. Everybody around here knows each other, and feels like we’re going through these tough times together, so the whole town is on board. People I’ve talked to all over the state are just happy there’s something they can do to help, even if it’s just sending an e-mail or clicking a mouse.”
On the KaBOOM! blog, an Ontonagon voter discussed how they got the word out.
“When I heard about KaBoom contest, it occurred to me that Ontonagon didn't seem to have much of a chance. Arlington was sitting down there with its own population, plus Dallas-Fort Worth. Tucson is huge. Brusly has Baton Rouge across the river. Rex is not too far outside Atlanta. We needed to get all of Michigan involved. And Ontonagon is almost Michigan in a microcosm, its only industry (a paper mill) on shutdown and ailing as Michigan's biggest industry (Guess what?) is ailing.
I sent emails to relatives and friends all over the state...and country. Apparently, I was not alone. Others in our remote village obviously came to this conclusion. The response was overwhelmingly flabbergasting. I know my emails created pockets of voters in Florida, Washington State, California, ARIZONA, TEXAS, NEW ORLEANS, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, Oregon and... You know what these people did? They took my information and FORWARDED it. I am sure others had the same reaction. I Google "Ontonagon KaBoom playday" and find pages of forums, blogs and websites that have adopted our community. One blogger on a national collegiate hockey website is calling us The Big O. I've never heard that one before.”
Voters on the receiving end of messages like those were inspired to both vote and help spread the word. A voter from Louisiana posted the following on the KaBOOM! blog:
“I'm not from Brusly, I live in Baton Rouge and work in a large law firm here. No one in my family will ever play on this playground but …I've been told to vote on the local news, I've heard it on the radio and I have received (and I just counted) six different emails from two different friends reminding me to vote. Ever day, several of my friends' facebook status has showed up on my blackberry reminding me to vote. After the first few times of seeing and hearing about it, I went ahead and made it one of my home page tabs, and first thing every morning for more than a week I vote. Brusly itself may be a small town, but those people all work across the Greater Baton Rouge area and therefore the extension and reach of their campaign was deep and quick. Actually a member of my department has people in New Orleans voting daily as well... and so on, and so on… my facebook status will now ALSO petition support to my 250 friends from New York to Los Angeles. Good luck to all, and I'm extremely proud of every Brusly friend for a job well done!”
Because of this amazing outpouring of support, both Brusly and Ontonagon will receive a $10,000 grant for playground improvements courtesy of KaBOOM! and NFL PLAY 60. Ontonagon has recently had to consolidate its elementary, middle schools into the high-school building, and will put their money towards a new playground for the kids. Brusly’s grant will be used to build a playground that will help their kids get active and healthy.