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Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010 01:57 pm

There goes the neighborhood

Volunteers build new playground in a single day

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Volunteers help construct a new playground at Springfield's Gehrmann Park on Sept. 25.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

A new playground in Springfield’s Gehrmann Park will serve as an anchor in a neighborhood that is revitalizing itself one step at a time.

On Sept. 25, about 200 volunteers converged on Gehrmann Park in the Enos Park neighborhood of Springfield to construct a donated playground in a single day.

Featuring what Derek Harms, director of recreation for the Springfield Park District, calls the tallest slide in the city, the new playground was designed around the suggestions of local children. Swing sets, a safer version of a zip line, a climbing wall and other features complete the  playground. Wood mulch piled about two feet deep beneath the playground will serve as a cushion in case of falls.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter playground,” Harms says proudly. “It’s really what the community wants.”

The park district acquired the three-acre park in 1945 and recently removed old, outdated playground equipment to make room for the new donated equipment.

Steve Combs, president of the Enos Park Neighborhood Association, says the playground is one piece of a plan to restore the area’s historic grandeur and bring visitors from all over Springfield and the surrounding area.

“We look at the neighborhood as a whole, and we want to establish the Enos Park neighborhood as a destination,” Combs says. “It’s the place you go for a reason. This (the playground) is, to me, just another example of what’s so special about the neighborhood. We’d like to think that the reputation will get out that there are some really neat jungle gyms and slides here, and all of a sudden, we’ll have moms and dads bringing kids here from everywhere.”

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois donated most of the money for the project, and several volunteers from the health insurance company helped put the equipment together, along with volunteers from the Enos Park neighborhood and the Springfield Park District. A California-based nonprofit known as KaBoom! provided guidance to bring the project together in one day.

Jorge Contreras, a project manager for KaBoom!, flew to Springfield from California specifically to help oversee the Gehrmann Park project.

“I’ve always been dedicated to my community and public-service oriented,” Contreras says, adding that Harms has made him an honorary Springfieldian for his work on the project. (He even ate a horseshoe while in town.) Contreras says playgrounds help reinforce the community by enriching children.

“Kids are not only active on a playground, but because it’s unstructured, their creativity is just through the roof,” he says. “We feel that creating a place of play that’s both safe and accessible for a child will help create better citizens for the future.”

Though the actual construction of the playground took a single day, Harms and others planned the project for several months to ensure it went smoothly. He says other neighborhoods that want to do similar projects should call the park district.

“We’re always looking for community involvement for parks throughout the district,” Harms says. “We’re open to suggestions and willing to work with anyone we can.”

Leslie Sgro, president of the Springfield Park District, volunteered on the project, saying parks add value to neighborhoods by providing places to be active and bond together.

“I just get an enormous amount of joy out of watching the community come together and do something so incredible,” Sgro says. “There are people here not just from Springfield, but from the whole area. It just underscores the importance of the parks to the whole community and the sharing that goes on in this community. I love the sense that if we all pull together, we can do something special.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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