Volunteers build new playground for Berwyn kids

June 4, 2011 (BERWYN, Ill.)

By the end of the day, children in Berwyn will have a new place to play and a way to grow healthy food.

The construction site at 19th Street and Cuyler was bustling with activity by 8 a.m. as volunteers were arriving and preparing to start building by 8:30 a.m.

"Oh, it's just amazing," said volunteer Benjamin Handy. "The sense of community that's all around is just palpable."

The day's activities were co-organized by the North Berwyn Park District, in conjunction with KaBOOM! and Disney. KaBOOM! is a charity with a mission to provide play areas for children around the country. Disney, the parent company of ABC7 Chicago, provided funding for the project.

Approximately 200 volunteers were helping to build the Berwyn playground, including ABC7's Jim Rose and General Manager Emily Barr. ABC7 is told the park district actually had to turn away about 100 other people who were interested in helping to improve the community for its children.

Disney is sponsoring the project in a dozen cities around the country through its Magic of Healthy Living initiative, supplying both financing and volunteers.

"If you ever go to the Disney Parks, you know it's all about the experience for families and children, and this is a way to reach out beyond Orlando and Anaheim and get into our communities," said Barr. "We have a big presence, obviously, here in Chicago, and it's a way to reach people who are living right here and give them a little bit of that Disney magic."

Before Saturday's effort, the park had fallen into disrepair because -- in a situation similar to that in many other communities around the country -- there was a lack of funding to keep it up.

ABC7 is told the playground is will be state of the art and will also include a vegetable garden where children can learn about growing food.

"Part of this was teaching the children about the magic of healthy livin, and I'm all for that. So, I have been doing service learning classes with the children, teaching them about the importance of vegetables and how they grow and how to use them, and I will continue to do this after the garden is planted," said volunteer Marlene Comella, who designed the garden.

"I have a legacy of gardening. My father was a landscaper. My parents loved gardening, and they passed it on to me, and I want to pass it on not just to my grandchildren but to the children of the community," she said.

Another of the central goals for the playground is to fight what organizers call a "play deficit." They say only one in five kids has a safe place to play.

"We think that's unfortunate. Luckily, we have great partners that we partnered up in the last couple of years to make sure that it's not just one in five ,but every child has a safe place to play," said Jorge Contreras of KaBOOM! "Good old sweat equity. We will make 250 volunteers work for six hours straight. "

"For every project, we ask that our partners be committed to play - and North Berwyn blew us away by their commitment to creating safe places to play and, moreso, their commitment to community," said Contreras.

"It's going to have some unique features in it," said North Berwyn Park District Executive Director Joseph Vallez. "So we're hoping that people from all over the community are going to come out."

The area will house a vegetable garden in addition to the playground, and it will be named in honor of late alderman Ben Brocato. He died in 2007 while serving his third term.

"Community and family were very important in his life and this is a tribute to a man who lived his life with integrity and honor and genuine respect for people," said Maureen Brocato, Ben Brocato's widow.

The playlot will be the first step in much larger project. The suburb is expecting a $1.5 million grant from the state to complete the renovation.

"Phase two will be the demolition and construction of an interactive water park, and phase three will be the installation of an Astroturf soccer field," said Vallez.

The children can hardly wait.

"I'm proud that they're making a playground for us to stay healthy and work out," said Andrew Saenz.

"I think it's great because with everyone helping they can build the park faster," said Dyanna Saenz.

Although there was a ribbon cutting Saturday afternoon, volunteers will be putting the finishing touches on the playground this week. The North Berwyn Park District will host a grand opening next Saturday.

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