Debbie School Gets Dream Playground

Here’s how to fulfill a dream: Take a mountain of mulch, a pile of sand, a few tons of concrete, 15 wheelbarrows, an army of volunteers, a blueprint designed by students, and a unique organization dedicated to bringing play to every child in America. Mix everything together on a sweltering July Saturday. Add some upbeat music, a lot of smiles and enough sweat to fill a pool, and voila!

Six hours later, you’ll have the kind of playground the staff, students and alumni of the Department of Pediatrics' Debbie School, at the Mailman Center for Child Development, have been fantasizing about for decades.

“It’s awesome,” Angelica Stack, 10, a Debbie School grad and summer volunteer, said from the school’s rooftop patio as she watched some of the 250-plus volunteers wrangle a new, bright red triple slide into place. “The slides we had were babyish. One was all moldy.”

Now, thanks to KaBOOM!, a national non-profit born of tragedy, and its partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which sponsored the playground, nearly every student at the center where young children with hearing impairments and other special needs attend classes with typically developing youngsters will be able to play outside in the school’s tree-shaded courtyard.

Until Saturday, when two years of fundraising, meetings, planning, organizing, training, recruiting, designing, and a whole lot of wishing culminated in one of KaBOOM!‘s trademark Build Days, that wasn’t so. Installed when the school opened 38 years ago, the original playground wasn’t suitable or safe for kids with disabilities, so it was off limits for most of them. Rusty, creaky and outdated, the playground wasn’t all that appealing to typically developing kids, either, and when it was uprooted to make room for the new playground, much of it just crumbled.

But after the energetic army of volunteers divided into eight teams and spent six hours shoveling, carting, hauling, dumping, assembling, hammering, drilling, painting – and lots and lots of sweating – they transformed the 2,500-square-foot play area into a wondrous sight accessible to all. The centerpiece is the jungle gym, which consists of a bright blue bridge, rock climber steps, an inclined cliff hanger, a scavenger hunt panel and four smooth slides, including the side-by-side curvy triple, where three kids at a time can glide down together.

In another corner, volunteers painted a concrete pad with the red, yellow, green and blue circles familiar to anyone who played Twister growing up. Amateur painters also filled in the borders to turn the walls and back fences into colorful murals depicting the magic of childhood. The only holdovers from the old playground are a purple dinosaur and a green turtle that look at home in their bright environs.

“Unbelievable,” said Steven E. Lipshultz, M.D., chairman of pediatrics, associate executive dean for child health at the Miller School and chief of staff of Holtz Children’s Hospital, surveying the extreme makeover. “For at least 20 years people had been looking at ways to make this happen. Dreams do come true. This is not just a playground. It’s a way we help kids achieve their maximum potential.”

Indeed, the Debbie School’s physical therapist Claudia Zuluaga fought tears as she described how the new playground will double as a therapy area, enabling students to work not only on balance and coordination, but communication skills, social relations, emotional development, self-esteem and self-confidence.

“It is not just a playground,” she said. “It is a dream. To me, the playground is everything.”

There’s only one temporary hitch: The concrete is still setting, so students won’t be able to actually use the new equipment until at least Wednesday. Until then, though, they can play with their Imagination Playground in a Box, rolling carts filled with gigantic foam blocks that encourage unstructured play, provided by the Knight Foundation at 18 KaBOOM! playgrounds the philanthropic organization is sponsoring across the nation.

“By coming together to build a playground, we believe communities are stronger and more resilient,” Damian Thorman, the Knight Foundation’s national program director, said before school director Kathy Vergara cut the colorful groundbreaking ribbon students made to dedicate their new playground.

The collaborative design process KaBOOM! has used to plan and erect more than 1,798 new playgrounds across the United States, Canada and Mexico also proved to be an extraordinary learning experience for the students. They employed their art skills and imaginations to draw pictures of their dream playground, and to create mosaic stepping stones and bird houses for the garden; they expanded their vocabulary as they perused tunnels, jungle gyms, and other equipment in a playground catalogue; they learned about choices and decision-making as they voted on their favorites; and they drew on their math skills to count down until Saturday’s Build Day.

Established in 1996, KaBOOM! was founded after CEO Darell Hammond read a news story about two Washington, D.C., children who suffocated while playing in an abandoned car because they had no place to play. Determined to make sure every child in America would have a playground within walking distance, he developed KaBOOM!‘s “community-build” playground model to mobilize disparate neighborhoods to come together and act on behalf of their youngest residents.

The program came to the Debbie School’s attention when Juan Carlos del Valle, UM’s director of government affairs, toured the school and, noticing the rundown equipment under the lovely oaks and along a bicycle path, suggested the faculty apply to KaBOOM! for a grant to fund a playground. KaBOOM! then partnered with the Knight Foundation for project funding.

Now, thanks to KaBOOM!, to the Knight Foundation, to the staff, students and alumni of the Debbie School, and to the 250-plus volunteers like Rolando Jimenez who brought their enthusiasm, energy and big hearts to Build Day, dreams do come true.

“As a boy I received help from the Mailman Center, so when my neighbor brought me here, I said, ‘Wow, I know this place,’ “ Jimenez, an engineer, said, wiping his sweaty brow. “It gave me goose bumps. I never knew how I would repay them.”

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