Every child needs a safe, friendly place to play. But in a big city during a time of financial crunch, coming up with the means to put in a playground is not always easy.
Enter KaBOOM!, a non profit organization dedicated to building playgrounds across the United States – they want to bring play back to children. What these folks do is simply amazing: they organize and lead huge groups of volunteers and corporate sponsors in a one-day build-a-palooza that starts with an empty space and ends with a playground for kids in need.
On this trip to San Francisco, I opted to be one of those volunteers, to lend a hand with the Cesar Chavez playground at Bret Harte Elementary, generously funded in part by California Volunteers. Cities can be hard, grey spaces and this playground was adding in elements dear to any gardener’s heart: a greenhouse classroom, raised bed planters for vegetables, and butterfly attracting plants near the open areas.
And oh, yes, trees. Meyer Lemons, which fruit year-round here, California buckeyes with their palmate leaves, and beautiful redbuds to shade the slides, climbing structures and twirling platforms the group installed. But the children’s area was not all to be found at this build; this is the first inter-generational playground in the US, according to organizers, incorporating a senior walk, interactive garden and gathering areas.
Security was tight at the event; we passed through metal detectors and showed our ID cards for entry. But this was understandable – the 500 volunteers were being led by California’s First Lady, Maria Shriver, and Julie Rodriguez, granddaughter of Cesar Chavez and program director of the foundation in his honor.
As we worked painting walls, installing trees, pouring concrete footers and assembling jungle gyms, Ms. Shriver wandered the yard, offering encouragement and checking progress. About 10 a.m. she left, after promising to return later in the day to check on our progress. Ms. Rodriguez remained with us, working alongside groups.
Gardens were planted with impressive speed; the school was given a fresh look with gorgeous murals. Brightly colored equipment was bolted together and out of a flat asphalt area the playground rose, inviting us to be kids again.
Then the SWAT team arrived, along with dozens of San Francisco’s finest-in-blue. Police on foot, motorcycles, and horses surrounded us. Murmurs had circulated about a special guest, but only when the rooftops became lookouts for serious-faced sentries did we believe.
The rumor was true. When Ms. Shriver returned, she came with First Lady Michelle Obama. Our First Lady spoke of the joy of gardening; how her first vegetable patch at the White House is thriving with all of the rain they’ve had. She called on us to build more and with urgency, because the need for outdoor spaces – gardens and playgrounds – is critical. Obesity is on the rise. The numbers she cited were shocking: 30-percent of children in the US are obese, and the youngest – our little ones – are predicted to live shorter lives than we.
Is this the legacy we want for our kids? Our grandchildren? These thoughts she gave us before she and Maria Shriver turned their hands to building slides and toys alongside us. There we stood – 500 people from all walks of life and heritage, coated in mud, smeared with paint and sweat – in awe; content to watch two First Ladies roll up their sleeves and bolt things together. But the Secret Service politely announced that they wanted us to get back to work.
So we did. And we’ll continue to do just that, working in our communities to bring gardens and play back to kids. Ask KaBOOM! to help you explore your options, or others in your area.