By: Victoria Schmitt Babb
Turn on the television, read the news, follow Tweets, scroll through feeds on Facebook and it is evident that our world is becoming more and more polarized than ever before (at least in my lifetime). People are hunkering down in philosophical and dogmatic silos where perspectives are “us” versus “them” and if you are not with us then you must be against us. There is a loss of “we” happening in America. Now is the critical time to band together on something that can bring back the “we”. Now, not tomorrow.
What can revive the “we” in America? Many things, but for starters…play. Play is a neutral, but effective way to bring various sectors together. Regardless of differences, people from all walks of life can identify with play. We all know about the intrinsic force to play. Children need play, children want to play. Not only does the play space bring people literally together to interact with one another, work together, take turns, and foster friendships, but the effort to bring play to a designated site is something that is just as cohesive.
Two years ago, my childhood stomping grounds of Ferguson, Missouri lit up every news network across America and even attracted attention from international networks. The images of the upheaval, the anger, the violence still linger in some of our minds. A line of police officers stood wearing riot gear, shields in their hands, faces protected to thwart off a very angry crowd. The majority of the “protestors” who reeked the most havoc came from areas outside of the quiet, suburban area in North St. Louis County. Nevertheless, the world watched as police and people struggled against one another. This just did not happen one night but a series of weeks, both in August of 2014 and again in November 2014.
After reading an article about local police officers handing out ice cream to children in order to help foster positive relationships, the Play 4 ALL team, an extension of Cunningham Recreation, wanted to expand on that effort and offered the idea to give something more sustainable… a playground. In less than 4 weeks, we reached out to the Fraternal Order of Police through the St. Louis Police Association and the City leadership in Ferguson. Both groups loved the idea to raise the philanthropic dollars to bring a playground to the Ferguson Community Center. The site was slated to one day have a playground when the city budget would allow for it. No need to wait, the resource of both funds and labor were mobilized in 48 hours. Equipment was ordered through GameTime and a community build date was set.
On September 29th, 2016 a group of committed volunteers arrived on the playground site, some with tools in their hands while others had never picked up a tool in their life. Police officers, firefighters, local Ferguson residents including youth, homeless youth living at a Youth in Need transitional living program, Ferguson Police Chief, Ferguson Mayor, Ferguson small business owners, along with people from across the St. Louis news viewing area put everything aside to focus on bringing play to those who matter most… the children.
It took approximately 5 hours to build the structure and anyone who has ever built a playground realizes that it is no easy feat. Side by side, volunteers including police officers and youth lifted steel decks and fastened slides and climbers, passing tools back and forth while getting to know one another. The process of seeing each other as “equals” helps strengthen the ties of humanity; fostering a connection, building trust, dispelling myths and racial stereotypes – that was the REAL impact that day. Play 4 ALL realizes the process of healing will involve much more than what we were able to do on that day, but it’s a small step. A step in the right direction. People from all over St. Louis continue to bring their children to this playground to take photos. News media crews followed the project and If you know of a community interesting in a Healing Communities Through Play project, please contact Play 4 ALL. Together we can engage the partners, mobilize the dollars and take a small step towards healing and togetherness.
The Ferguson Community Center playground is the instrument that will continue to bring people to a common place, a place where everyone matters. It was a collaborative gift by sectors that at one time were pitted against one another. As we left that day, a young man turned around, looked at the playground and said – “now that is a beacon of hope and awesomeness.” That statement was enough for us to say, let’s do this again… and again.
Play 4 ALL launches Healing Communities Through Play initiative in Ferguson, MO. It all starts with one small step in the right direction.