From A Dull Roar To A Fever Pitch
Wake up early. Stay up late. Change the world. This is the mantra I have lived by the past 10 years. I am not a parks employee by trade. In fact, I am quite the opposite. The closest I come to working in the parks industry is binge-watching Parks and Recreation. I aspire to be even an ounce of the character that Leslie Knope embodies, but for now I work for a non-profit organization as a youth director. You might be wondering what a church employee could have to offer a government organization. What I bring to the table is imagination. I bring creativity and energy. I bring belief and hope for what parks and recreation renovation could look like in the future. My role as a youth director is a lifestyle, not a career. The way I work reflects the way I live and vice versa. There is no getting around the way my real life and career have been intertwined. It was when my real life crashed head-on with my career that I became a part of what I consider to be my greatest accomplishment—rebuilding Lion’s Park in my hometown of Reedsport, Ore.
Disappointed Yet Determined
During the summers of 2013 and 2014, I took my youth group to Reedsport to participate in a program called “Christmas in July.” It is a community effort funded by private donations and grants that seek to renovate and maintain homes for low-income or disabled persons. My youth group loved being in a coastal community, working alongside homeowners, learning new skills, and feeling like their efforts were making a real difference. While we were there, I took them to the park where I used to play as a child. I was shocked by the disrepair of the playground structures. The big, yellow spiral slide was gone, and its entrance had been boarded up. The climbing web had eroded and had been removed. The zip-line handle was broken, the ball bearings in the merry-go-round were shot, and nearly every inch of metal was rusted! Nails were sticking out and the wood structure was jagged. The Lion’s Park playground was once a gift to the city from the since-departed timber industry. Upkeep had become more of a bandage operation at this point. Funds did not exist to renovate the park. Nobody was stepping up and taking responsibility for this structure, let alone bringing the park back to life. I knew I had to do something. I was certain that with the help of my youth group, I was going to rebuild my favorite childhood park.
I did what I do best and just started talking the non-existent project up as though it were a real possibility. I was bound and determined to make my pipedream a reality. By mere coincidence, I met the city manager while both of us were volunteering to paint one of the town’s food banks. From this encounter, a partnership soon grew with the city and its employees. The city manager was already on a fast track to find ways to refurbish the town’s main street areas and parks. He did not hesitate to give me the green light to make this project happen. This is when momentum really began to build. Alongside us came the Lower Umpqua Hospital Foundation, as well as the Parks and Beautification Committee. A Lion’s Park Renovation Board formed and began conference-calling monthly to discuss everything from fundraising and budget updates to equipment bids and community impact. A number of local doctors saw value in the health benefits this new project could provide and cut checks to back it up. We reached out to the local newspaper and invited business owners to make tax-deductible donations to the park
at the city bank. I began writing grants and collecting smaller community donations via the Internet in November 2014. A crowd-sourcing page was also published as a way to bring in donations from former residents and strangers from all over the country. Donors who gave $50 or more will be thanked with a customized brick. These bricks will be fashioned together as two hop-scotch boards that will be placed in the park. We also started a Facebook campaign as a means of rallying volunteers. All potential volunteers are informed that no person is too young or too old to participate in this project. Construction and collision-repair businesses donated the use of their backhoes and loaders, as well as the operators to run the machines. Every single aspect of this project has been a grassroots operation. However, planning has been at the heart of the project from the beginning. Every dollar brought in will be strategically spent to get the best result possible. This means having no overhead expenses. All hours spent rebuilding by volunteers or city employees are donated.
Needless to say, aid grew quickly for Lion’s Park. After seven months of early mornings and late nights, we had raised nearly $62,000! This was the result of six separate grants and many community donations. In July 2015, the participants of Christmas in July tore out the broken playground equipment. A week later, 10 of my students dropped their plans for three days to rebuild the first portion of the park with city residents and employees. After the first portion of the park was installed (a new pre-school structure and renovated benches), the campaign grew rapidly. Donations have remained consistent, and grant foundations are taking us more seriously than ever before. We are in the final stages of securing two grants totaling $72,500—the balance needed to complete this renovation. Our hope last November was to replace two playground structures, but given the funding we have received, we will be doing much more. Our renovated Lion’s Park will include infrared security cameras, ADA-compliant, vandal-resistant drinking fountains, updated ADA-accessible ramps, new park benches, a barbeque and picnic area, custom signage and murals, and state-of-the-art playground equipment, which will stand the test of weather and time.
It has truly been a small miracle to watch a dream come to fruition in only 11 months. This project has done more than rehabilitate a park. It has renewed the hopes of a small community. It has taught my students valuable construction skills they might use someday as a means of earning an income. It has reinforced the virtues of volunteerism and civic efforts. And it has changed the world I inhabit.
The total project budget is $133,300 and we hope to complete it by March 2016.
For more information on this project, visit www.gofundme.com/lionspark or like us on Facebook: Rebuild Lion’s Park. Victoria Schaaf is the youth director at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Salem, Ore. Reach her at email@example.com.