A day for play
Community joins forces to build much-needed playground in Jackson Ward
By Tom Gresham, University Relations
For a while one Friday in November, the nuts and bolts of a smiling fire truck proved maddening to Anthony Muscatello, the assistant director of external operations for Recreational Sports at Virginia Commonwealth University. Muscatello was one of more than 300 volunteers, including more than 50 students, faculty and staff from VCU, who elected to devote their day to building a playground from scratch at Abner Clay Park in Jackson Ward. The fire truck, which Muscatello and his team dubbed “Freddy the Fire Truck,” was large and red and blessed with obvious appeal to kids with rich imaginations. However, the fire truck’s grinning face created a more sinister effect during the construction process, when Muscatello struggled to get the face drilled into its proper place on the front of the engine.
One of Muscatello’s fellow volunteers cheered him up when he said that every time Muscatello drove by the park after that day the sight of Freddy would make him feel good — and Muscatello knew that was true.
“It was a metaphor for the whole experience,” he said. “It was very challenging, but very, very rewarding, too.”
“This was a great opportunity for the School of Education and VCU to give back to our community.”
And, in fact, when Richmond officials removed the caution tape on Monday morning and a group of children from the daycare center across the street from the park scrambled all over the new playground for the first time, the work of Muscatello and his teammates drew rave reviews from the playground’s target audience — and Freddy the Firetruck was a particular hit.
“What the volunteers were able to accomplish just makes you smile,” said Marilyn Milio, president of the Historic Jackson Ward Foundation.
Friday’s event attracted volunteers from across the city, and VCU was one of several organizations to send a host of workers. The playground received funding from multiple sources, including the Historic Jackson Ward Foundation, but the initial donation that sparked the project was made by an anonymous donor who saw the need for a better place for children in the neighborhood to gather, Milio said.
Tito Luna, neighborhood outreach director in VCU’s Division of Community Engagement, said the simple but powerful purpose of the project served as motivation for the volunteers and helped inspire such a large group to participate from VCU and elsewhere.
“It was really about helping kids play,” said Luna, who helped organized the VCU contingent. “For most of us, it took us back to our own childhoods and wanting to have a safe place to have fun and play and just be a kid.”
Kaboom!, a national nonprofit that helps communities build playgrounds, spearheaded the project and oversaw the space’s striking transformation. The Jackson Ward neighborhood and its children participated in the planning process, including helping to determine the featured equipment.
Diana Burkett, director of communications and enrollment management in the School of Education, said the event was expertly organized. “It was amazing to start with a completely blank canvas and end with a beautiful playground,” she said.
“Kaboom has the project management down to a science,” said Burkett, who mixed concrete and carried water at the event. “We had over 300 volunteers who showed up knowing nothing about what they would do. Somehow, everything came together beautifully.”
The School of Education, Recreational Sports and University Student Commons & Activities sent the largest VCU volunteer groups. The university also contributed financially, with University Student Commons & Activities and the Graduate and Professional Student Programming Board sponsoring lunch and the Division of Community Engagement co-sponsoring the T-shirts handed out to volunteers.
Muscatello said the event was a no-brainer for Recreational Sports.
“Through our field of recreation and understanding the benefits that recreation has, both mentally and physically, especially for youth, we saw this as a great opportunity for us to give back,” Muscatello said.
Muscatello said the department is determined that the playground build will not be an isolated event.
“It was just an incredibly rewarding experience,” Muscatello said. “We’re already looking for our next project.”
Burkett said the event was also a natural for the School of Education, especially considering the importance of having “safe and beautiful places for children in all neighborhoods to play.”
“This was a great opportunity for the School of Education and VCU to give back to our community,” Burkett said. “It is so important to step out of our everyday work and make an impact, showing our surrounding area that we care so very much.”
Milio said VCU’s heavy involvement in the playground construction was no surprise. Whenever the Jackson Ward community holds an event, such as a cleanup or a community association meeting, representatives from VCU are there ready to help.
“They’re around for everything,” Milio said.
As VCU’s footprint has expanded, Milio said the university has worked hard to ensure its impact in surrounding neighborhoods is a positive one. In particular, she pointed to the efforts of Luna; Lisa Mathews-Ailsworth, advisor for off-campus student services; and Officer Greg Felton, external relations officer with the VCU Police Department. A critical focus of the university’s effort, she said, is teaching students to be committed to service.
“When students see faculty and staff out volunteering and showing the importance of working in their communities, it teaches them to do the same,” Milio said.
Luna said VCU’s participation in the playground projects and others like it can be traced to the close relationship between the university and its neighborhoods.