PARK MANOR — After years of staying inside for recess on sunny days, students at a South Side elementary school have built their dream playground.
Though Meyering Park is just across the street from Augustus Tolton Catholic Academy, 7120 S. Calumet Ave., fear of shootings and neighborhood violence has kept students away from the park.
“We didn't do nothing for recess,” said Augustus student Ian Hinkle, who is wrapping up his sixth grade year at the school.
But that’s about to change. KaBOOM!, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building playgrounds across the country, teamed up with red wagon maker Radio Flyer to fund the creation of a safe playground and outdoor learning area on the school's campus.
On Thursday, more than 200 volunteers came together to complete the playground for students at the school.
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Ian's mom, Henriette Akins-Hinkle, said she’s glad her son will be able to enjoy the new playground.
“Up until to this point they really didn't have recess because we couldn't take them across the street to the park," Akins-Hinkle said. "So this being a safe protective area [is] beyond words."
Beyond recess, the campus overhaul added an outdoor space for learning. Volunteers put in a chalkboard and benches. Some planted tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables, which will be a part of what’s called the “Living Classroom.”
“This will be great. It’ll teach the children about green things and how to grow, because we already have culinary arts in our after-school program," Akins-Hinkle said. “Now they can see where it comes from.”
Parent Morgan Alexander has a daughter in kindergarten.
“They don't have recess right now because there’s no playground,” she said. “This gives them an opportunity to even do some teaching outside so they can enjoy being outside.”
Parent Morgan Alexander (right) helps build the outdoor classroom. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]
The Rev. Matthew S. O’Donnell, pastor at St. Columbanus Parish, said connecting with nature is important for kids.
“The kids can learn about nature by being in nature,” he said. “[They] haven’t had outdoor recess because we felt that taking them to the park across the street, where there is playground equipment, was unsafe because of what was happening in the neighborhood.”
So far this year, six people have been shot in the neighborhood — three of them fatally. Last year, five people were killed in Park Manor shootings, and 20 wounded.
Gym class was never outside, he said, adding that students have never had the opportunity to “be kids and enjoy the nice weather.”
O’Donnell also wants a fence built around the playground, which faces Prairie Avenue, and plans to open the area up to the community.
Kelly McCoy Williams has lived next door to the school for over 20 years and her daughter attended the school.
“I think it’s a great addition to the community,” she said. “Given the circumstances on the other side of the school [Calumet Avenue, facing the park], that the kids can’t play there, I think this is excellent, and I love the outdoor classroom, so it’s part fun and educational.”
Brittany Riley, senior project manager at KaBOOM! said with the help of professional playground installers, everything was up in under six hours. The national nonprofit has been around since 1996 and is dedicated to giving children space to play. To date, it's built or improved more than 16,700 playgrounds, she said.
Radio Flyer, known for its tiny red wagons, partnered with KaBOOM! for the eighth year. While parents were working, many of the children were riding around in the wagons. The company provided the majority of funding, Riley said.
“When I came here and met with the kids two months ago, they were so hyper and excited to finally have a playground and play safely outside,” Riley said. “Playgrounds are friend makers, muscle builders and brain expanders. We’re giving all the kids here a childhood they deserve.”