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It takes a community to build a playground


Government, businesses and a non-profit collaborated to build a park for residents of Gateway Park in east Portland last month. KaBOOM! Senior Project Manager Kenny Altenberg, from left, Humana Sales Director Aaron Massaro, Home Forward Asset Manager Chris Hughson, and Income Property Management Portfolio Manager Jessica Blakely put the final changes on the slide at the new park.
Mid-county Memo photoss/Tim Curran
New multi-generational features include exercise equipment and picnic tables. It was Gateway Park resident Albert Greenlee's idea to build a gazebo and picnic table in a different part of the apartment complex.
Before the construction of the new park, Gateway Park residents 13-year-old Legacy Hughes, left, and seven-year-old Kiy Gittens gave park builders suggestions at the design meetings, then helped build it.
Not-for-profit organizations fill the gap when revenue driven companies lack the incentive to answer an existing need. Many benefit children who, yet to enter the working world, cannot pay their own way, and have little say in the environment that surrounds them. Adults choose homes designed by other adults and children live within them, playing with what comes their way in the space they have. Not all kids have a large yard, a tree house, or a park across the street; so many apartment-bound kids spend even pleasant summer days inside.

The growing concern over childhood obesity rates has inspired a number of initiatives to encourage more physical activity, but to these apartment dwellers, where to play remains a pertinent question. The Gateway Park Apartments, a two-story garden style apartment community located on N.E. 100th Ave. near Glisan Street, houses residents with incomes between 50 to 60 percent of the area's median income in 144 one, two and three-bedroom apartments. There are no city parks within safe walking distance. Menlo Park Elementary School is 29 blocks away.

And although they have a pool in the summer time, less-wet outdoor activities for kids were few.

“The kids played in the parking lot and pretty much that was the only spot they had to play,” said Chris Hughson from Home Forward, formerly named the Portland Housing Authority, the non-profit organization that maintains the Gateway Park Apartments as an affordable housing option for a low-income population who also seek residences through their agency. Hughson thought of Gateway Park when he discovered, through an online networking group, that the national non-profit group KaBOOM! was looking for a place to build a playground in Portland. “I saw a lot of dangerous areas where kids were playing so we thought this was a prime spot for a playground,” Hughson said, and he quickly got the ball rolling.

KaBOOM! - founded in Washington DC in 1995 after its founder Darell Hammond read a story about two children who suffocated while playing in an abandoned car because they did not have anywhere else to play - wants every child to have a playground within walking distance. A mission that, because playgrounds do not charge admission, only a non-profit or charitable foundation could provide. Yet, due to the budget-crunching nature of low-income housing and the neighborhoods in which it exists, the need clearly exists, and once Hughson saw the call out to Portland, he wasted no time answering it.

In fact, there was no time to waste. KaBOOM! had an end of summer deadline of Sept. 22, and Hughson only learned of it at the end of June. An effort that would typically take several months of planning had to come together in two months and, due to the coordination from KaBOOM! project management, the Gateway Park site manager Cathy Flesey and property manager Income Property Management, neighbors, and other volunteers, it did come together, with the ribbon cutting taking place on the deadline day.

“You guys should be really proud of the work you put in today,” congratulated KaBOOM! project manager Kenny Altenburg during the ribbon cutting ceremony to the group of approximately 200 volunteers that included residents, neighbors, Home Forward and Income Property Management employees, the nearby Elks Lodge and others. “All these kids have a safe and accessible place to play right in their backyard and it's all because of the work you did today,” he said.

Thanks to the community-building efforts of the volunteers, Gateway Park's courtyards, once grass patches with walkways connecting apartments, now feature exercise equipment for all ages as well as picnic tables, a gazebo for shade, and of course, the playground, all assembled in six hours, a process carefully managed and orchestrated by KaBOOM!, but designed with input from the neighbors.

“They [KaBOOM!] actually came out for a design day and gave all the kids who live here the opportunity to draw their own dream playground,” explained Hughson. KaBOOM! then picked real life design features to create the playground the kids wanted, a departure from the adult dictated environment most kids live in.

Gateway Park's new structure marked KaBOOM!'s 2,171st playground, and though it stands as the 12th KaBOOM! project in the Portland metro area, it is the first such structure in outer Northeast Portland since the non-profit first arrived here in 2002.

KaBOOM! collaborates with child-serving community organizations, in this case Home Forward, who identify the need in their area. The play-promoting nonprofit then recruits a corporate sponsor to help fund the project. The Gateway Park playground was sponsored by Humana health plans, a company who clearly has a motivation to keep kids healthy. Humana has helped KaBOOM! build 19 playgrounds this year. “At KaBOOM! we are really glad to be partners with such a helpful healthcare provider that really practices what they preach,” said Altenburg. “I think that you guys hopefully have no doubt that the legacy for Gateway Park apartments has been improved right here today because of Humana's involvement.”

Even with this backing, the local agency needed to recruit 100 volunteers and raise enough money for equipment and other supplies. The Gateway Park Apartments rented building supplies from the Northeast Tool Library, held a car wash to raise funds, and received donations or gift certificates from Cash & Carry, New Seasons, Village Market and Sierra Springs to keep the volunteers fed, hydrated and ready to work.

Using volunteers recruited by the community helps give neighbors a sense of community pride and ownership over the structure. City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who joined the team for the ribbon cutting, reminisced about the playground she helped build in southwest Portland. “Every time I go by it I think I helped do that,” she said, “This is what makes Portland a great place is that [sic] people care about each other.”

The courtyards were a flurry of activity that morning while motivational music pumped from a loudspeaker. Those not physically able to help watched from their porches or balconies as volunteers wearing Humana t-shirts swarmed around assembling the brightly colored equipment. Once all appeared complete, congratulations and gratitude abounding, the bad news came with the force of the last hammer stroke. “The next sentence out of my mouth is the worst part of my job,” announced Altenburg, “The playground cannot be used for 72 hours.”

The cement needed to dry in order for the playground to remain stable.

Though their dream playground may magically appear in their backyard during the course of one day, some banes of childhood still exist in the real world and waiting is one of them. Still, compared to Disneyland which charges between $80-$90 for a day of play, and the more local Oaks Park which charges $12-$25 for admission, a free playground outside the doors of your apartment is, as two kids donning Humana t-shirts slouching in chairs commented at the close of the project, “cool.” Their eyes did not look up from the screens of the smart phones they played on, but then again they do need to wait until Tuesday, and they will make do.
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