Because it takes a village: Flint's newest playground opens with help from 100 volunteers

FLINT, Michigan—An army of grandparents, union workers, and students converges on the field, a mob of volunteers tearing at a mountain of mulch with rakes and shovels, hammering stakes into place, and readying a massive new playground for fun times.

This is Hasselbring Senior Center, which is now (and always has been) far more than a senior center. It is the heart of this northside neighborhood and a gathering place for residents of all ages. Over the years, it has seen its share of ups and downs, operating changes, and uncertainties. Today, the sun—and the future—is shining bright. 

Directing groups of volunteers hauling wood chips, Jamie Gaskin stops to assess the progress. “We probably have about 100 and will probably see about 125 volunteers over the course of the day,” says the CEO of United Way of Genesee County and resident of Flint for 14 years. Building new playgrounds in Flint is part of larger plan to heal the city. “Getting them installed within walking distance to a large population of Flint children is key,” he says as workers laugh and music blares in the party-like atmosphere.

The builds started with a playground at Berston Fieldhouse last year. The Hasselbring structure opened Tuesday, Aug. 15, and another opens Friday at Broome Park.

About 80 percent of the $150,000 cost for the playgrounds comes from the Flint Child Health and Development Fund (often called FlintKids.org) and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint with support from a network of other supporters including the United Way of Genesee County, The Links Inc.-Flint Area Chapter, Make An Impact Foundation, Keep Genesee County Beautiful, city of Flint, and Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce—plus the large group of volunteers who gave their time and effort. 

“Of course we want our kids to have fun, but what’s important here is that this playground is filled with so many building blocks. This is where families build memories. This is where children build their muscles and their imaginations. This is where we bring our whole community together,” says Isaiah M. Oliver, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. 

Pointing at the brightly colored slides and the jungle gym, Gaskin also notes that the playgrounds are just one component of a larger community-wide response to the water crisis, which also includes medical and educational intervention.

The volunteers show up from every part of the county and the city. Job Corp member Tayvon Tilley, 18, says he came out in the early morning hours because he wants to see something good happen for the kids. “You know my instructor told me about what was going on here, and it kind of gives you a chance to give back to the community,” he says. “I didn’t really have something like this when I was coming up, and you want to be able to see these kids have fun, be safe, and stay out of trouble.”

Autoworker, UAW member and lifelong northside resident Rick Heller says he is simply happy to be involved with something positive for the city. “You get so tired of the negativity, because that’s not what I feel the real Flint is all about, it’s not a complete picture,” he says. “You look around out here, you see young and old, coming together for something good, but you go outside the city and you say you’re from Flint and all you hear is stuff about the water or the crime,” Heller says. “That’s not my Flint. You see out here today? This is my city, this right here. This is my town.”

Heller says he is also concerned about how much activity children are accustomed to and thinks the new parks will engage children physically. “We live in an age of technology that is all around you,” he says. “You see these youngsters glued to a phone or an iPad, and you kind of wonder what they might be missing out on with all those hours inside. At least with places like this, they’ll have the choice to play safely outside instead.”

Children and local residents helped to design the playground at Hasselbring. The United Way hosted a design day in June and 30 to 40 neighborhood children were given art supplies and told to build the playground of their dreams. “When you really build for what the kids want, the space becomes more a part of the community,” Gaskin says. “Sure, you can hire a company and build something and drop it in here. Or you can bring the community in first and build a relationship with the place, and playground really becomes a part of the neighborhood.”

And, it will make all the difference here and now, says Bonnie Grass, a lead organizer for volunteers at Hasselbring Senior Center. “It’s not like it was when we were going up where you could go to a local school or park with a swing set,” she says. “Here families can come and we at the center will help out in watching what’s going on and help out where we can to keep this park a place just for them.”

As the day wore on, the mulch pile melted away and hundreds of children came out for the opening as did the mayor, city councilman and funders. Then there was pizza, a ribbon cutting, and—finally—fun to be had. A little boy ran up, calling over his shoulder: “Come on, let’s go, let’s go!” 
 
“Ok, where do you want to start?” his father asks. 
 
“Let’s go to the swings,” the boy says, as he jumps up and down. “I want to show you how high I can go.”

Read more articles by Jake Carah.

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