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Daycare gets a new playground thanks to volunteers

The term “assembly required” took on a whole new meaning at 9 a.m. on Saturday when 200 volunteers unwrapped St. Stephen’s preschool’s very large present -piece by piece, box after box – in the middle of a closed-off street.

Amid the sea of flattened brown boxes and sheets of stray bubble-wrap, volunteers were assigned to teams of three and five people, making small clusters sporadically spread out across the barely visible black asphalt road. The altruists were sitting, standing, bending, twisting and mulling over how to properly screw, hook, join, attach and connect colorful poles with potato chip-shaped plastic chunks.

Lowell Hartzell, consulting his consolidated 12-page instruction manuel with worn corners at the staple, moved from station to station, continually running his hands through his short, salt-and-peppered colored hair and pulling at his white socks that barely stuck out from his tan Timberland work boots. He first instructed one build team, then another, troubleshooting his way through a field of questions and concerns.

Hartzell, a former Lumberyard Manager, had a deadline of 2:30 p.m. to deliver to the children of St. Steven’s Daycare Center in Tacony the gift of a brand new playground.

“Since I build playgrounds for a living, they have me here to help out, troubleshoot, keep things moving,” said Hartzell, who stands about 6 foot 4 inches tall with a linebackers frame, but a bowler’s belly. “They usually go pretty well, we pretty much meet our deadlines. The KaBOOM! team leaders keep things pretty well regimented, I’m just along for the ride and to help when I can.”

KaBOOM! is the Santa Claus. A national non-profit organization based out of Washington, D.C., the organization uses a community-based build model to complete the organization’s signature “done-in-a-day” program.

The process kicked off with a design day where local children submit designs for the new play space. Each week afterward, a KaBOOM! Project Manager worked with the planning committee to help them organize logistics for the day of the build. This eight- to 10- week planning period culminated in build day, in which community and corporate volunteers worked side by side to build a playground, ice rink or skatepark, or refurbish a sports field.

The Knight Foundation, in which the two churches involved – Grace-Trinity of Northwood and St. Stephen’s – fall under, wanted to bring a KaBOOM! demonstration to Philadelphia. The foundation contacted Grace Trinity Pastor Chandra S. Soans, who is also the executive director of the Grace Neighborhood Development Corporation. Soans worked out an application with St. Stephen’s Daycare, and the rest is history.

Photo by Tom Rowan Jr.
(Photo by Tom Rowan Jr.)

“I can’t go to school today, I have to build a playground!” said Sandi Ramos, 31, to her Lincoln University professor as her excuse for missing her class on Saturday. “My son is two, so he’s gonna love this. And it’s good because the playground down the street is for the bigger people, you know, and so this is something geared to the smaller kids and safer for them, and you really don’t have to worry about getting run over by the bigger kids, so that’s really exciting.”

At 1:01 p.m., Lowell Hartzell was slowly sinking in the mulch where the playground would go – directly to the left of the church’s front door – and scratching his head. Around him men were rolling in and out with wheel barrows full of mulch, while others spread the compost evenly throughout the surface on their hands and knees. Hartzell offered his help to a team determining how the red poles will fit together with the yellow poles, and which way the metallic slide will face. He took a quick look around at the pre-dug holes, pulled his head up for a few seconds, then redirected his attention to his worn-out manuel. A woman with bushy, fuzzy brown hair wearing a bright purple construction vest with KaBOOM! emblazoned in white across the back informed him the concrete is being prepared. “OK, Right on schedule,” he said.

“We are using seven tons of mulch today, SEVEN TONS! Isn’t that amazing!?” said Titus Wright, 50, Northeast resident and a member of Pastor Soans Grace Trinity congregation. “My wife and I signed up after Pastor told us he needed 200 volunteers to sign up, and we like the guy, he married my wife and I last year, so we both said yes. It’s great for the community and it’s pretty fun getting my hands dirty.”

As part of the playground package, the daycare is also receiving the new imagination playground in a box, which is only the second of its kind in Philadelphia. The concept is a semi-mobile kit of parts suitable for a variety of outdoor and indoor sites. This set includes a storage unit on wheels, imagination playground blocks and parts that encourage sand and water play, along with a variety of other loose parts.

“The Imagination box is cool and it seems really high tech,” Ramos said. “All the teachers are trained to use it, and they help the kids build to a form, and then they can it take it apart and make it another way. And when they’re all done they just put it away at the end of the day, and it’s done.”

Photo by Tom Rowan Jr.
(Photo by Tom Rowan Jr.)

Outside, the volunteers were digging, pouring, mixing, mulching and building. Inside, the kids were painting.

“The parents made an outline of a mural and the kids are filling it anyway they choose,” said Carolina Herrera, daycare director. “This is their project too, and even if they can’t help build they are helping to make their own difference by matching what is in their minds with what is in their hearts.”

At 2:41 p.m, the playground was complete. Pastor Soans posed for pictures in front of the playground, making sure to get the giant scissors in the shot. The kids had to wait a day or two to make sure the playground was stable, but the task was complete.

Lowell Hartzell watched the closing ceremonies with his arms folded, a small smile creeping across his face. He said of the playground: “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Tom Rowan and Gail Austin are students in Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab. You can also see this story here on Philadelphia Neighborhoods.

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