All work makes for play

Organizers say the playground project at Stadium Place in Waverly has drawn more than 3,000 volunteers, with some work left to go.

April 16, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Not too long ago, this corner in the Waverly neighborhood was a parking lot for the old Memorial Stadium, once home of the Colts and the Orioles, but then home to nothing.

Just two weeks ago, it was a field of dirt and rocks and tiny patches of grass. By the end of the day tomorrow, it is expected to be the largest community-built playground in Maryland - with slides and swings and monkey bars, with volcanoes and rocket ships and castles suitable for climbing and lots of make-believe.

As at an old-fashioned barn raising, volunteers have been streaming in day after day, from all over, just to be a part of this urban playground that has become a key part of a North Baltimore community renewal effort.

"How many have we had come through this gate?" asks Debra Evans, whose name tag says "Queen Debra." She is the director of the project and the brains behind it.

"More than 3,000," answers Meredith Curtis, who is coordinating the volunteers.

"I like the numbers," Evans says. "I'm always asking about the numbers."

There were 2,000 volunteers in the first three days. They expect more than 5,000 before the last nail is hammered sometime tomorrow afternoon. At times, there have been so many people that organizers haven't known what to do with them all. But they find it hard to turn anyone away.

So they come up with jobs. Some volunteers spend their time drilling holes or cutting the pieces of recycled plastic that make up the bones of the structure. The youngest apply soap to screws to make them easier to insert. Others offer small cups of water to the thirsty workers. There's the wheelbarrow brigade - delivering mulch from a mountain on one side of the playground to where it's needed. There are the artists who are painting a seascape underneath what will be a sailing ship.

"We're getting everyone working, even if it's stomping on the mulch to pat it down," said Sarah Kleven, 24, of Wisconsin, who is spending 11 months in the Maryland Conservation Corps. "Everyone's getting their 2 cents in."

"It is very organized," said Lisa Boyce, another of the project's top organizers, who also runs a health care consulting firm. "It is amazing."

A place to play

Evans first heard about community-built playgrounds in 1998, when a woman she knew was taking her granddaughter to one in Pennsylvania. The grandmother wondered why there wasn't anything similar in Baltimore. Evans did, too. The playgrounds in the area were just too small and unsafe. She wanted a place for her then-6-year-old daughter to play - and for the thousands of other children in the low- to moderate-income areas nearby.

But it has taken time to get here. There were issues of where to put the mega-playground and where to come up with the money - $350,000 in all, with about $50,000 left to raise - to pay for it. There have been hundreds of meetings and thousands of hours of planning and design and thought to get to this point.

"My 12-year-old said, `I'm grown now, so how come you're still working on this?'" Evans said. "I told her it's for all children."

The money has come from private donations and corporate sponsors, as have supplies and food to feed the hungry crews. Tools have mainly been loaners: People dropped off their circular saws and drills, and volunteers engraved them with driver's license numbers so they can be returned to their owners when the work is done.

The land is part of Stadium Place, the development that sprouted after Memorial Stadium was demolished. The 14,000-square-foot playground sits on a spot donated by the recently built YMCA, which will insure the playground and maintain it once it is finished. In addition to the Y and the playground, Stadium Place includes a senior housing complex.

Evans said there are nearly 2,000 community-built playgrounds across the country, including two in Harford County. Very few, though, are in urban areas, she said. Before this project really got going, she thought she knew why. She thought it was that people would have to take off time from work to get involved, something many couldn't afford to do. She thought that it was because the people who own the businesses live in the suburbs and that those in the cities wouldn't know where to turn for financial help.

Evans thought, "We're not suburban America, where we put everything on hold to build a playground. But I've proven myself wrong. We've proven you can do it."

Work remains

There's still much work to be done. It started 10 days ago with a giant auger digging 400 holes for posts. After the posts were erected, a concrete truck pushed its contents into each hole. Four inches of drainage rocks were laid. Fabric and mulch are going over that in some places.

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