Monthly Archives: June 2010

It Takes a Town to Build a Playground

Imagination Station sign

Entrance Sign to the Imagination Station playground

It’s been a while since I’ve brain dumped here, mostly because I’ve been a bit too exhausted to think creatively.   I certainly didn’t feel compelled to do much writing, either.   Good thing I have no plans to make a living off of my creative bent as an author.

It’s been about 3 weeks since the new playground, Imagination Station, was built.  It turned out beautifully – it is a full out colorful, fun, engaging and spacious playground.  There are so many more things for kids to do in/on it.  The artwork is a personal favorite for a few reasons, not the least of which is that I love colorful playgrounds.  There are artistic elements that are unique – mosaic tile signs and a giant mural (climbing wall).  Everything artistic was an original design and hand painted.  I worked with the Art & Design team for the bulk of my volunteer hours there.  There was a motley mixture of young to middle aged, along with a couple of elderly women as well.   To find words to describe the collaborative efforts would make the experience sound almost cliche.   But it’s true nonetheless.  People who didn’t know each other were able to work together to create fantastic work.

Mural/Rock Climbing Wall

Mural/Rock Climbing Wall

Other moments from the build stick in my brain like photographic images yet there are sounds and smells attached to them as well.  The first day was drizzly, the kind of “wet” that ruins any hairstyle and makes everything from wood to plastic feel thoroughly damp.  Forty people had signed up to help that day, and the Food Committee was thusly prepared.  By lunchtime-prep time, however, about a hundred people were working throughout the site.  Extra pizzas were ordered and picked up.  Everyone stopped working promptly at noon, had a damp lunch and were back at work before 12:30.  Volunteers in yellow shirts (including myself) acted in a variety of roles – “runners” to take other volunteers from the registration table to the areas of the work site.  Yellow Shirts also worked in Food, Child Care, Art & Design and, of course, Construction.  There were 2 areas of Construction, too – the actual playground site and the pre-fab tents.

Day 1 had me starting at the Registration table, where I was labeled “blue” (unskilled construction).  So, blue label on a Yellow Shirt.  Fine with me!  I then was a Runner for a while, handing off a steady stream of volunteers to one of the 14 Orange Shirted Construction Captains.  At some point, I morphed into a “red” (skilled with a circular saw) label and was cutting the ends of  a seemingly unending stack of pickets.   I worked alongside both friends and strangers.   The construction captain, a dry humored but exceedingly helpful guy named Stu, kept us all busy and always made sure we had whatever we needed.  This was to become “the expected” way to do business for the duration of the build – dry humor being optional.

Day 2 of the build found me at the Bronx Zoo with Nicholas’ class trip.  It was a hot day and the bus ride was, unfortunately, longer than expected.  But we made the most of our time there, touring our particular “must see” spots with another mom and her son.  As always, we enjoyed what we saw and made a list of what to see the next visit.  The bus ride was better on the return trip.  As the bus drove by the lake and the playground, the kids on the bus all looked eagerly out the side windows to see the action.  It was great to hear them so excited – they are the age where they will probably play there now and then for just a few more years, but if the playground lasts as long as we’ve been told it should, then these kids can actually expect to have their kids playing on it some day.  There is something inherently awesome about that idea.

At the end of Day 2, my parents arrived for a visit.  They would both be helping at the build as well, and Dad even arrived with tools that had been lacking and needed (cordless drills, routers).

Day 3 was going to be a hot one.  My parents and I headed over to the park in separate cars, as we figured one but not all of us would need to be back at the house in the afternoon to get both Alicia and Nicholas squared away.  I ended up being a Runner then landed in Art & Design, where I’d essentially stay for the rest of the time.  Dad checked in his tools and was given a red label (well deserved) and assigned to a Construction Captain directly on site.  Mom went to Food and then the Registration Table, where she’d end up for the rest of the time, too.

The 3 of us had lunch together before splitting up for our duties, then Mom went home in the afternoon.  Dad stayed on until dinner time, when he and I both headed home.  Mom and I returned in the evening for a few hours.  All of us were exhausted that night, too.  But we all agreed that it had been a great day – the playground was going up quickly and already looked great.  Everyone was working hard, cooperating wonderfully, and there was more than enough food & drinks.

Day 4 was another long and hot one but not nearly has brutal, weather-wise, as the day before.  Nicholas hung out in Child Care while Dad, Mom and I worked in our respective areas.   I was now painting just about everything I was directed to – the pyramid “tops” of the towers (to be installed by crane on the final day), the train, the dollhouse and parts of the pirate ship.  Being more or less within the construction zone of the playground itself was amazing.  It’s easy to become focused on a job close at hand, but when I would take a breather or move to another area to paint, I was completely blown away by the amount of people working in just about every square foot of space, on multiple things at the same time, and somehow – like a bee hive buzzing with activity and profound organization – everything was simply coming together.  Dad was working with another man to install the hundreds of spindles that enclosed the maze walkways and staircases.  Mom was efficiently checking people in and making friends.

And I had blue, red, purple, yellow, and magenta paint all over myself – and I mean, ALL OVER.  My hands, my arms, pants, shirt, legs and sneakers.  Somehow, my baseball hat escaped all evidence of the work I’d been doing.

At some point on the evening of Day 4, the crowds that had been gathering around the perimeter of the playground work site had trickled down a little.  As I was painting a dollhouse in the Tot Lot, a neighbor and her young daughter called out to me.  Her husband was part of the crew that was installing 850 personalized pickets to mark the perimeter, and they’d come to see him and the playground.  As I talked to them, I could see the little girl look at the house, with all of its pastel yellow-purple-and-magenta-ness, and I knew that this was going to be her favorite part of the playground.  (Three weeks later, this is still true)

Painted House

Painted House in Tot Lot

Day 4 ended late for me.  Dad had gone home a bit earlier and Mom came home with me.  I’d finished painting the house with 2 women whose husbands were both doing construction work while their kids were in Child Care.  As tired as all of us were, it was amazing how much we were still willing to put in before it got too dark.  The forecast for Day 5 was not good at all – rain, rain and more rain.  Crews stayed past the “lights out” time, from what I found out the next morning, too.

Day 5, the final day, started grey but dry.  Mom and I got to the build around 8:30, and there were already well over a hundred people there, mostly on the playground site itself.  The playground was now entirely visible except for the tower tops to be installed that day.  The shapes that had started as 250+ vertical posts and a confusing series of platforms were now as they had been designed: a pirate ship, a castle tower, and a rocket ship.  The Tot Lot had a dollhouse and a train, with swings, teeter totter and those crazy innocent looking animals on the giant springs of doom.

There was a celebration planned for the evening, around 6PM.  By noon, it was clear that we’d be cutting it close.  Some things were done more hastily and the tons of mulch that needed to be dumped then spread interfered with construction and painting.  And somehow, some woman and her 2 teen sons designated themselves artists and painted sections that were not supposed to be painted.  She and the boys were stopped but it was too late – they’d used up precious paint (to be used on other areas) and now created an unfinished look in parts.   As of this writing, touch up paint work still needs to be done and I’ll be helping with that this week.

One of our town councilmen had been involved with the playground committee since its inception nearly a year ago, and he worked each day in the Tool department and was also going to be our celebration’s Emcee.  He preferred to keep it simple, which was best, given that most people were less interested in fancy speeches come the Grand Opening and more about letting their kids explore every inch.  We had special t-shirts designed with the images of the 2 main coordinators of the project, with the words (roughly): “If you see these people, thank them!”   The steering committee members wore the shirts at the Grand Opening celebration and I think many people in the crowd noticed them and thanked the coordinators.

The weather improved as the afternoon progressed, and by celebration time, it was a perfect spring evening.  Crews that had worked nearly non-stop all day were still somehow still standing.  I found out that a great number of the construction volunteers that day had shown up as early as 6:30AM (start time wasn’t until 7AM) to get a jump start to get it all done in time.

Nicholas was with me for a while before the celebration, Mom and Dad had already left for home.  I wished they could have seen, in person, the final product AND the reactions of the hundreds of kids who climbed all over it later on.  Nicholas’ reaction was, for me, worth it all.  I brought him close to the still on-going construction about an hour before it was done.  His eyes took in everything – the mulch still being spread by a ton of teens and adults, the last minute construction work by college kids to grandfathers.  And yes, a few last minute paint touches here and there… Nicholas asked what his grandfather had helped with and I was able to point out a few areas.  He saw where I’d painted, and we both felt that it was only fitting that I’d painted the train.

When it was time for the celebration, he was among one of the first 20 kids to get inside – I lost sight of him immediately.  But I knew he was safe (there’s only 1 way in/out) and I found him after a few minutes.  He found some friends and they were blurs of flying hair, arms and legs as they ran everywhere.   It was simply amazing to watch.

I saw many friends as well, and some of the new ones I’d made during the build.  I don’t think any of us who’d been a part of it could truly quite grasp, on that evening, just how awesome, yes, awesome, the whole thing was.  It had taken approximately a gestation period to come to fruition and it was a wonderful sight.  It was also a great sound – hundreds of kids laughing and shouting in excitement, murmurs of awe and appreciation, and the sound of running, climbing and sliding.  The smell of mulch was also strong but, thankfully, not as bad now that hundreds of people were standing/running on it.  It’s power to overwhelm had been diminished with sudden and intense use.

The glow of the experience wasn’t just felt by me.  It was common to find someone else who had that same satisfied, tired but happy expression that said “Holy cow, this is just incredible.”   At one point, as I hung around the entrance/exit, looking around for Nicholas’ in-motion self, I also noticed a young man standing next to me.  I’d seen him on site on the 4 days I’d been there, and he was rather distinctive because of his choice of neck accessory.  He had been working hard at the times I’d been painting nearby, helpful and upbeat.  I hadn’t talked to him before but thought I’d thank him for doing so much to help out.   He was wearing the same expression I’d described above and was smiling as well.  So I thanked him and then asked if he had any kids there, enjoying it.  He said no, he was only 20 and home from college.   He’d stopped by on Day 1 to help out because he wasn’t currently working and it seemed like a “cool” project to work on.  He never expected to return for Day 2, let alone Days 3, 4 and 5.  And he was the first one who told me about arriving at 6:30AM that morning to help out.  He then said that he was looking forward to bringing his kids, when he had them someday, to the playground and showing them all the parts he’d helped with.

That pretty much nails why this project worked out the way it did:  the people who had interest – regardless of the reasons – in helping out did so.  It wasn’t just the people who turned up those 5 days, either – there were many other people who donated money, services, tools, food, drinks and other supplies.  All told, about 1,000 people helped out from what I heard from another member of the Steering Committee.  We needed at least 750.  We had to feed everyone – we had food and bottled water left over.  We needed at least $120,000 for materials/services, and we raised about $150,000.  We had sponsors for every aspect of the project and materials.  Businesses, organizations, families and individuals all contributed.  It is incredible what this town was able to do because something needed to be built for kids – without politics, egos and a tax burden.

As the playground gets used, and the town gets used to the playground, the project evolves into Maintenance and Enhancement.  Already there are a few things to be repaired or replaced, while landscaping and fund raising plans are being discussed.  And I’ll be back there, painting here and there, to keep it looking as good as new.