This morning I got up at the crack of dawn to head over to the office. However, unlike schedule extension weeks or other work-related busy periods, today I was early for a different reason. Clad in jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers, I was ready to roll my sleeves up and really work… to build a playground for underprivileged kids in Queens.
After a pleasant walk from the subway, I arrived at a big dirt-filled open space that showed no signs of the nascent playground it would become, aside from a few holes in the ground. There were probably 200 volunteers in blue shirts converging on the donuts and coffee that had been set up at a tent in the corner, but even with all that manpower, I had a hard time envisioning what this would become. Sure, there were plans drawn up, but could we really do this in just one day?
A tent was set up with coffee and donuts, and I helped myself to a glazed donut with pink frosting and sprinkles – I figured I’d be burning off the calories pretty soon. Sure enough, we started the day with a speech and then some stretching, led by a local yoga instructor.
We divided into teams based on the sticker that was on our nametag, and mine was a strawberry, so I went with the “fruits and vegetables” group (perfect for Ms. Absolutly Fit, huh?). Our fearless leader, Walter, led us over to a parking lot where there was a big pile of wood and a big bucket of screws. Our assignment? To build the benches that would go all around the park.
At first I was disappointed. I wanted to build the slide, the swings, the climbing wall… something fun! And I get to build a boring old wooden bench? No fun. It became especially no fun when we had to stand around for a while waiting for the proper drill bits and tools (we realized the ones we had didn’t fit the screws we had). In the meantime, I looked longingly at the “mulchers,” whose job it was to carry the humongous pile of mulch load by load over to the playground to fill in once the concrete was laid down and the structure were secured. They were shoveling, lifting, and carrying… I wanted a workout!
But then I discovered… the electric drill. Now, you have to understand, I’m not really a power tool kind of girl. Sure, I made a dovetail box in middle school shop class, but it took me like 6 weeks to do so and I ended up filling in the gaps with some sort of sticky stuff and then sanding it down so it looked smooth. A drill? Forget it. But as it turned out, I was pretty handy with the thing. We worked in teams to build the first benches, and on my team, I was responsible for most of the drilling while others figured out what went where and held things down and stuff.
We took a break to grab lunch (hotdogs and hamburgers fresh off the grill – yum!), and I checked out the progress the other groups were making. I couldn’t believe it – where just a few hours earlier there had been a big field, there were now some recognizable (though still incomplete) playground structures. This thing was really coming together!
I sat down to eat with some coworkers I hadn’t seen all morning, and asked what their task had been. It turned out they had a really cool project: they were painting the inside of the community building next to the park, and adding all kinds of cool inspirational words and pictures.
After lunch, we knew we only had about two hours left to work, and despite all the progress that had been made, I was doubtful that we’d finish. Now that we had learned how to make the first bench, our team split up, so it was just two of us working on the second bench. As the designated driller, I was super proud of the work we did, and also proud that we were the first team to finish our second bench. I may not be fast at marathoning, but maybe I’ve found my new calling in benchbuilding! As the benches continued to be constructed, I realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to identify mine, so I put my initials on the back where they wouldn’t be seen but that I could find it. How cool will it be to come back to the park with Boyfriend, sit on my bench, and have a picnic?
With my benches complete, all that was left was the closing ceremony. First, there was a speech by Darryl McDaniels from Run DMC, who talked about how important it was to have a creative outlet like this for kids. He attributed his own success to being able to express his creativity, and said that in the early days of rap, the music was all about community projects like this instead of drugs and violence. To further illustrate this point, we had another speech by a young teen from another part of Queens, April. She talked about how, as a child, her parents wouldn’t let her and her friends go out to play because it was just too dangerous. She and her friends petitioned for an empty lot to be turned into a skate park that was safe for everyone, and that goal became a reality a few years ago. Now, in this part of Queens, she was happy to see that other children would have the opportunity that she fought so hard for. It was a really moving speech, and I was glad that she was the one to cut the plane-decorated ribbon as the playground officially opened.
After the ribbon cutting, our CEO gave a brief speech about the importance of giving back to the community, and made the comparison many of us had been making all day to Extreme Makeover Home Edition. He reminded us how on the show, they always scream, “Move that bus,” and told us that while there was no bus, he wanted us to scream, “move those trucks!” On the count of three, we obliged, and lo and behold, two ice cream trucks pulled into the park to provide free treats for all the volunteers. Eating ice cream in a beautiful new playground on a gorgeous summer day, knowing the difference we just made for hundreds of families? Amazing.