Barren and littered with needles and other trash, the grassy area outside of Collington Square School in East Baltimore was not much to look at the day before yesterday. Then a few Baltimore Ravens players and a volunteer force swept in to build a playground.
Right outside the kindergarten classrooms of Jenica Braxton and Mike Longo, who was sporting a No. 52 Ray Lewis jersey for the occasion, Ravens players such as cornerback Evan Oglesby and defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison, lugged tarps full of mulch. And they mixed concrete in wheelbarrows for construction of the playground, complete with rock-climbing walls, swings, a slide and monkey bars.
Even before the players arrived, the team band was fired up. The Ravens cheerleaders were shaking their pompoms. And before dark, the shiny new playground was ready for its first visitors.
It was a sight that had the kids at Collington - from the youngest to the eighth-graders - shrieking and clapping. And the emergence of a gleaming place for children to play offered hope for new possibilities in a neighborhood that is often riddled with violence, drugs and despair.
"We live in the neighborhood, and there's no where for the kids to play after school that's safe," said Mary Greene, mother of sixth-grader Kendrick Washington Jr.
The nonprofit group KaBOOM!, which has built more than 1,200 playgrounds in low-income neighborhoods across the country, worked with the Ravens All Community Team Foundation and the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which operates Collington, to complete the project in a day. It was finished by 5 p.m.
"People can see what's occurring in one day, so the entire community can imagine what can happen in more time than that," said Alison Risso, spokeswoman for KaBOOM!
The Ravens foundation paid most of the $150,000 for the project and provided a bulk of the more than 300 volunteers - not just players, but employees across the Ravens organization.
"So many of our players came from similar circumstances, where somebody did this type of thing for their community," said coach Brian Billick. "Sometimes there are only things we can learn on the court, in the field, as opposed to in the classroom."
Volunteers also did landscaping, including tree-planting, and students painted hopscotch forms and a map of the United States on the asphalt.
"There's a lot of temptations in this neighborhood - and not good temptations - so we have to make some activities available at the school so that the school becomes irresistible," said Alison Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which has operated Collington as a charter school since 2005.
Though event organizers warned the crowd that the players were there for work, and not to bug them for autographs, the players obliged the fans in most cases.
Corneluise Bruce, 15, a student at Lake Clifton Senior High School, offered up a basketball for signing - he had lost his football. "I'm getting my autographs," he said after one of the players signed his ball.
Vernon Parks, 40, who lives a few blocks from the school, felt compelled to volunteer. He has no children, but some of his neighbors are students at Collington.
"It's something for the kids," Parks said, as he took a break from assembling a swing. "It will keep the kids off the streets, especially the young ones getting in gangs. Plus, this is my area."
See a video of the project at baltimoresun.com/playground