MLK Day project breathes new life into Houston Elementary’s playground

Even though school was not in session Monday, Henry H. Houston Elementary’s playground was abuzz. But instead of children running, jumping and playing, they were shoveling wood chips into wheelbarrows and even pushing them, some hollering “beep, beep” as they flew past adults.

The Martin Luther King Day of Service project was the first in what’s expected to be an annual effort at the Mount Airy school moving forward.

Participants Carol Davis and Rusty Prall said the workday came at just the right time. The couple, who has helped maintain the outdoor space for the past decade, noted that the playground has never been in such a sad state.

“The woodchips need to be restored every couple of years and I think it’s been three now,” said Prall. “It’ll need ongoing maintenance.”

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In addition to adding new woodchips, volunteers also replaced some playground hardware, including bolts and chains. The items came courtesy of Ken Weinstein, a local developer and owner of the Trolley Car Diner.

“For now we’re getting [bolts on the swing set] tightened up, we’re replacing the chains on the ones that have been broken and we’re replacing the security chains so it’s at least usable again,” said Prall. “In the long run, we’re going to need to replace all the bolts that hold them up there.”

Fresh faces

Davis and Prall were both part of a now-defunct community-based group –Friends of Houston Playground – that, until recently, regularly helped maintain the playground.

The group, made up of parents and near neighbors, had an agreement with the school that it would help keep the playground a community asset. But as their children grew up, many parents lost interest in volunteering. Without anyone spearheading the effort, playground maintenance became more infrequent.

In early 2013, the decade-old agreement expired, leaving the community in search of fresh faces interested in working at the playground.

Near neighbors and parents, who have been unhappy about the lack of maintenance and late-night shenanigans at the playground, may have found some of them on Monday.

‘ It’s up to the neighborhood’

Nearby neighbor Liz Gould came to the volunteer event with her husband and three-year-old to give back to the community.

“We wanted to start teaching Briar about giving back to the community and to help out others,” said Gould. “This is one that impacts us because we come to this playground a lot in the afternoons and when it gets messy it gets hard to play.”

Gould added that the workday’s efforts made the playground looked cleaner than it’s been in a while and that she plans on volunteering at the playground in the future.

John Nordlof, who also lives nearby with his wife and two children, said he dropped by to volunteer because he knows the school isn’t able to maintain the playground on its own.

“There’s 400 or 500 kids at Houston Elementary and they use [the playground] very intensively,” he said. “So I think it needs to be tended to.”

John Staples, another near neighbor, said he hopes the event sparked more interest in the playground’s needs.

” The school district, they need to put their money toward more important things,” he said. “I think it’s up to the neighborhood to keep the playground going for the kids and the school.”


If you’d like to help maintain Houston Elementary’s playground, email

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