Community Building

With falling budgets, sometimes it takes a little ingenuity and an outpouring of community spirit to make things happen. Such was the case with the recent completion of the Crystal River Elementary School (CRES) Playground in Carbondale, Colorado. A friend of mine, Erin Rigney, has three young children and frequents playgrounds on her family vacations. While traveling one summer in Alaska, she came upon a playground that felt somehow different; it had slides and swings and all of the other features of a typical playground but it seemed to speak to the place where it was located.

Now Erin is a go-getter and she wanted to learn more about the playground. What she found was that the project had been built by the community in association with Leathers and Associates out of Ithaca, New York. Leathers and Associates works with communities all over the world to design and then build playgrounds using a kit of parts but morphing the construction to allow for the playgrounds to take on a unique character for each location depending on community input. Armed with that small tidbit of information, Erin was on her way.

Along with a group of seven other women, Erin decided that our local elementary school, CRES, needed a playground. Undaunted by the fiscal requirements for constructing the playground, Erin and her tribe were off and running. The school district, to their credit, supported the project in concept but in the days of shrinking budgets, couldn’t commit to providing any financing for the playground. The district agreed to allocate the land for the project if Erin and the others could raise the money. Over a year and a half later, the group had raised over $80,000. The funds were raised through grants, fundraisers, and penny jars; one cent at a time.

In addition to the fundraising efforts, the team enlisted the help of local parents, students, designers, artists, and carpenters to help personalize the playground so that it would speak to our unique community here in Carbondale. Our office had such fun participating in the effort. Erin came by one morning and for four hours we all put aside our computers and other daily work to focus on design ideas for the playground. The boys in the office wanted to design an entry to a mine indicative of the historic silver mines that dot our valley. And the girls wanted to create a mural for one of the blank walls next to the staircase leading up to the top of the slide. For those couple of hours we worked feverishly on our respective projects. Our biggest challenge was to continually simplify our ideas so that they could be implemented by the community during the construction. Ten days later we took an afternoon to join the community construction crews and help transform our ideas on paper onto the playground itself.

Now the whole premise of Leathers and Associates approach to playground design is that the community builds the project. So over a four day period some 700 community volunteers, yep 700 volunteers, showed up in all kinds of foul weather to construct the playground. We were lucky in that it was warm and sunny for our afternoon construction shift. Participating in that event was one of the most phenomenal community building experiences that I have ever witnessed. During our shift, there were over 100 volunteers on site, and every single person was working. Typically in those settings some people are standing around talking, visiting more than working, but this was different; everyone had a task and everyone was engaged. It was so moving to see young and old; Anglo and Latino; professionals and novices; girls and boys working side by side. All aspects of our community showed up in ways that were unimaginable. It wasn’t billable work for our office, but it sure was satisfying work. And what Leathers and Associates have found is that once a community builds one of these projects, they often come back for more as they are so inspired by their first effort. I’m already waiting for Erin to cook up our next project.

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  1. I think this is so cool. Playgrounds are such a powerful memory of childhood and it’s kind of frustrating to visit some lately that are pulled right out of a catalog. Recently, I was at a park and a little boy came up to my friend’s daughter to ask her to play with him. He said, “It’s ok. I’m nice!” They played together on the slides and swings for a while and I wondered at what point we stop making fast friends like that. It would be fun to have a similar project like CRES in my neighborhood that brought adults to the same (literal and figurative) place to build something fun.

  2. This reminds me of Little House on the Prairie for some reason – barn raising and homestead building and bringing in the crops, when all the neighbors got together to complete a seemingly insurmountable task. I read an article this past week-end that touted the benefits of doing things the “old-fashioned” way. Bake your own bread, sew your own clothes, hand wash the dishes, get a push mower, raise your own food…on and on. Evidently science and the medical field have found a striking correlation between these types of activities and “fixing” depression, in addition to other psychological benefits. It’s not just the tasks themselves, but the sense of satisfaction one recives from doing it yourself. This challenging of the brain by physically accomplishing a task with your own two hands has in so many instances been taken away by the modern conveniences offered us. This special park is a concrete example of what could be happening all over the country by creating a plan and pulling together. Thanks so much for sharing this Laura.

  3. Laura,
    Thanks for publishing this great recap. I am truly flattered! Your team was so awesome to get involved. You all transformed what was possible even in my wildest dreams.

    To this day, the entire CRES playground build was the most satisfying and rewarding volunteer experience I have had the privilege to be a part of shaping. Always makes me think of the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

    Thank you for changing the World Laura!

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