Building Playgrounds — Rebuilding Community

Don’t be fooled. Playgrounds aren’t simply a nice way to pass the time. They aren’t a way to keep your kids busy. Rather, they are where kids meet other kids and become friends, where moms and dads meet other moms and dads and become friends, where dog walkers meet and become friends, where Frisbee throwers gather and become friends, where the community builds new and stronger bonds and, in some cases, repairs a hurt that is slow to disappear.

Such was the case at New Orleans’ Taylor Park.

Located in Central City–a historic, working-class neighborhood between downtown New Orleans and the area commonly known as the Garden District–the park (originally dedicated in 1912) had its long, glorious history and cherished place in the community disrupted by the power and fury known as Hurricane Katrina. After the winds and rain subsided, the park was left with some sports fields and little else. The playground was damaged, beyond repair, and removed.

Into this void stepped KaBOOM!, the New Orleans Recreation Department, and Playworld Systems. Their mission was to rebuild the playground and, by extension, the community–making it bigger and better than before the storms first formed far across the Atlantic Ocean.

Dreaming Big

To start the process, decision-makers from Playworld Systems met with the non-profit organization KaBOOM! to choose a site for a company-wide playground build. Like most successful projects, lining up powerful partners is always a good first step. KaBOOM! definitely fit the bill.

Named for the spark of community energy that can build a playground in just one day, KaBOOM! is to playgrounds what Habitat for Humanity is to houses–all volunteer efforts and dedicated partners like Playworld Systems, The Home Depot and Fannie Mae.

Sarah Pinksy, KaBOOM!’s Director of the Gulf Coast Initiative, which includes Operation Playground (an initiative to build 100 playgrounds in Gulf Coast communities from Mobile, Ala., to Houston, Texas, affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita) suggested Taylor Park, and all parties quickly agreed.

With the site chosen, the next step was to develop a working design.

So, in December 2006, representatives from all parties met with a local team of “playground experts” to design the new Taylor Park playground. These experts, kids from a local day care, drew pictures of their dream playgrounds, which the designers then used to create the final product.

The plan, according to Matt Miller, President for Playworld Systems, was to bring the staff back a month later for its annual company conference and, during the week of meetings, take a day off to help rebuild the playground. Of course, the company would also donate the $100,000 worth of equipment–one of the largest donations for the area to date.

“But first,” Miller said, “our group took a tour of New Orleans and saw how life was really not moving forward. One of the hardest things to see was the magnitude of the devastation in the city–it just goes on and on and on. Everything needs to be rebuilt.”

Miller, having participated in 10 gulf builds in 2006, was already aware of the dire need in the area, and if others were not convinced before, the tour cemented the importance of what the company and partners were about to do.

“We could see what was and wasn’t happening as far as reconstruction,” says Miller. “We know from experience what a playground can do—it reinvigorates the community, and then the feeling snowballs.”

Miller says he vividly remembers talking to an employee at the hotel which was hosting the annual meeting, who broke down crying when he was told about the plans to rebuild Taylor Park.

“This gentleman grew up there. He told us he really thought that God brought us here,” says Miller.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

The day of the build dawned cold and wet, but a steady downpour and 40-degree weather didn’t keep distributors and employees from jumping on buses and traveling to the site to volunteer. Local residents met the group there, and by 7:30 a.m., hundreds of volunteers, some of them wielding hammers recently used to repair their own homes, went to work. By 3 p.m. their wet, cold hands gave way to warm, bright smiles as the playground opened and their kids rushed to be the first to try it out.

Melanie Minch is a freelance writer in Medina, Ohio. She can be reached via e-mail at gardens@zoominternet.net.

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