Volunteers transform a Raleigh playground in two days

ajames@newsobserver.comJune 17, 2013 

— In a span of two days, volunteers transformed a run-down playground for children with disabilities into an outdoor sanctuary, with interactive games that teach them about the environment.

Nearly 80 volunteers worked on Saturday and Sunday at the Jordan Child and Family Enrichment Center on Glenwood Avenue, a place for 3- to 5-year-olds that is owned the by the Methodist Home for Children.

Teams cultivated a sunflower garden, built a shed for toys, created a greenhouse, and upgraded a sandbox to include a dinosaur fossil that children can excavate.

The team was led by a group from the Legacy Center, a Chapel Hill-based company focused on teaching self-improvement.

“Here the kids can see sunflowers growing, and they can learn about being responsible so they will take care of the environment,” said Danielle Taleas, who is a part of the team from the Legacy Center.

The project, valued at $40,000, relied completely on donations, including supplies from Lowe’s and Home Depot.

When the volunteers arrived, they found a shed that resembled a playhouse, filled with toys, and covered with mildew on the inside.

The team took off the roof of the playhouse and put greenhouse paneling on top. They cleared out all of the mildew, and put trays of plants inside. Now, cantaloupe, peas and watermelon are ready to come to life.

Katherine Hutchens is the director of the Jordan Center. She said that the teachers there will incorporate the environmental learning aspects of the playground into their classes.

“Teaching them how to take care of a plant or an animal teaches them empathy,” Hutchens said.

There are 158 children enrolled at the center, which opened 12 years ago. It is an integrated learning center, where half of the children are able to attend through subsidies, and the other half are from families who can pay out of pocket.

“We prioritize families with a need,” Hutchens said. That could range from a financial need, or it could mean a child who has a learning or physical disability.

Hutchens said a 3-year-old girl with spina bifida at the center is about to get her first wheelchair. She will get to play on the playground because it’s been resurfaced to be accessible for children with disabilities.

Overgrown bushes, remnants of broken toys, and dangerous sticks dotted the grounds before the group arrived.

“We had a whole folder of hopes and dreams of what the playground needed that was just waiting to be fulfilled, and then the group called and said they’d like to make it happen,” Hutchens said.

Their teaching model, used as a training model for other child development centers, focuses on children’s being involved, experimenting, and seeing a lesson first-hand, rather than being told how something works. It also teaches children how to care for others.

“We teach them to not just say they are sorry if they hurt someone’s feelings, we teach them to go ask the other person if they are OK, and ask them what they need,” Hutchens said.

The group from the Legacy Center that organized the project has a similar focus on developing compassion, but works with adults. The group included six people from N.C. 144, the 144th team to go through the leadership program at the life-coaching company.

The company has different sessions that people pay to attend. Part of the process includes “breakthrough trainings” that participants say help them to change their negative thinking patterns.

Many of the team members said the program helped them see how they could be helpful to others.

“It’s about being of service to others and being able to make a difference,” said Joey Cassiba, 50. Cassiba finished his leadership training three years ago but still likes to help out with each team’s group projects.

James: 919-553-7234

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