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Eva’s New Playground: A Labor of Love

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PATERSON, NJ - If there’s one thing the mothers and children who live in Eva’s Village Hope Residence know, it’s that hope springs eternal, and dreams really can come true.

The kids at Eva’s Village Hope Residence poured their ideas for a dream playground out onto paper at the start of August, and on October 6, 2011 (aka Build Day), about 250 volunteers showed up to the triangular patch of land between Spring St. and Prince St. to build that dream and transform it into reality.

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PatersonPress.com caught highlights of the event on video.

As incredible as it may seem, the project took about six hours from start to finish. Materials included 172 cubic yards of mulch and nearly 10 tons of concrete. The resources were donated by Kraft Foods, the project was organized by the national nonprofit play-advocacy group KaBOOM!, and the pieces were assembled by volunteers from Kraft Foods and the Paterson-area community.

Kraft Foods, in addition to contributing funds in corporate sponsorship of the project, gave its employees the option to volunteer for the day rather than go to their regular jobs. The rest of the volunteers came from various sectors of the Paterson community and Eva’s Village.

It was a complete community effort, one that took place in another 12 cities throughout the nation during the week of October 3–7 as part of Kraft Foods’ Make A Delicious Difference Week, the company’s annual commitment to community service.

Since Build Day fell on a weekday, the children were in school, so the adult volunteers handled the actual construction. And since it takes three days for the concrete to harden, the kids must “look but don’t touch” for a short while. (To a child, three days is akin to three months!)

Sister Gloria Perez, executive director of Eva’s Village, said she had envisioned this area as a place for children since the land was acquired. “When we bought the property, the goal was to make a space for children, a safe, lovely, pretty place to play,” she said.

Perez characterized the process as a real community effort, and added that one of Eva’s board members is a landscaper, which helped considerably. She revealed that prepping the land should have been a half-day’s job but turned into a weeklong endeavor because a building and oil tank were discovered beneath the ground.

Eva’s Village volunteer coordinator Jennifer Doherty said the organization had to complete an application process that required a demonstration of a need for a playground and proof that they have the space for it (over 2,500 square feet, in accordance with KaBOOM!’s requirements). They also had to raise $8,500 for one piece of equipment.

Kraft Foods, which provided 125 volunteers, was happy to work with KaBOOM! on the playground because the company wanted to do something positive in Paterson as part of its Delicious Difference Week campaign to fight hunger and promote healthy lifestyles.

 “I’m in awe of the extent of the generosity and compassion that exist,” Doherty said.  “KaBOOM! had been doing this for 15 years and has it down to a science. Similarly, we here at Eva’s Village have our organization down to a science—we feed more than 300 people each day in our kitchen!”

People from all walks of life and of varying abilities worked on the project. Volunteer George Balloutine, a client of Eva’s, described Build Day as a humbling learning experience. “In life, in order to receive, you must give first,” he said. “This is giving. If you woke up this morning, that’s significant. A lot of people did not wake up today. Anything beyond that is a blessing. That’s where the humbleness comes in. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO or a blue-collar worker – we’re all doing same work, no one is judging anyone here.”

Bob Guarasci, founder and CEO of New Jersey Community Development Corporation (NJCDC), was on hand with the organization’s director of community outreach, Eddie Gonzalez. They were both happy to help and get their hands dirty, and they had with them about two dozen students from the Great Falls YouthBuild, a program that helps people get their general education diploma (GED) and learn a trade.

One of the YouthBuild students, Jorge Rosa, said he used to walk by this patch of land every day on his way to work, and he’d always think that a park should be built here. “Now I can say I helped make that happen!” he said as he smiled broadly.

The process actually began on October 4 with two days of preparation. Equipment was delivered and sorted, lumber cut, and holes dug in the ground. The playground structures donated by Kraft Foods came from Playworld Systems, which creates innovative commercial playground equipment and has had a close relationship with KaBOOM! for 15 years.

On the morning of October 6, two huge dunes of mulch sat at the site’s entrance, and the playground-to-be was a flat stretch of land covered in white plastic with instructive markings. Purple poles were inserted in the ground as equipment components such as slides and swings were assembled in the street, which was closed to traffic. Wheelbarrows full of mulch were in continual transit toward the evolving structure, and the mulch was also loaded into tarps that were hefted by cadres of volunteers. The site was a constant bustle of activity, as volunteers laden with materials streamed in and out of the park’s entrances.

A purple skeleton began to rise from the flat earth, fleshed out with railings and large colorful molded plastic components. Bolt by bolt, barrowful by barrowful, the structure began to take shape.

“You can’t have fun without getting a little dirty,” said KaBOOM! Project manager Evan Mynatt.

One piece of the playground still have to be installed – the Peace Pole. Doherty explained the origins of the Peace Pole: Eva’s kids had participated in a service-learning project that covered volunteerism, recycling, and world peace. For their peace project, the kids painted and decorated a Peace Pole, which features the slogan “Peace prevail on Earth” in four languages. The pole will be located inside the park’s main entrance.

Among the groups that donated their services to the cause that day were the advanced massage therapy students from the American Institute in Clifton. Several massage chairs and tables were available, and the team was led by massage therapy program director Selene Del Valle. She had volunteered services at a previous Eva’s event, the Journey of Hope 5K run at Garrett Mountain.

Del Valle said that when she called to see if she could assist with that event again this year, she heard about the Build Day and wanted to get involved. The massage therapists offered relief to many a weary and strained volunteer.

Several politicians and officials were on hand at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, but Lori Grifa, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, was there throughout the day, down in the dirt with the volunteers.

“Eva’s Village is an anchor in this community and it extends itself to help those who need a hand up, not a handout,’’ Griffa said. “I’m also the governor’s representative for his healthy food initiative. In New Jersey, we have the highest rate of childhood obesity for the ages of  2 to 5. It’s not something to be proud of.

“But part of reason we have that is because our children, our inner city children, do not have a safe place to play,’’ Griffa continued. “But now, at least in this neighborhood, they do.” 

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