Playing with a symbol

The day was cool, wet and gray, but spirits were as bright as the yellow rain slickers that dotted the playground at Harms Elementary School in Detroit on Saturday.

This Monday, for the first time in more than 50 years, the children who attend this school will have something more than hula-hoops and games of tag to entertain them during breaks from the classroom. But the sprawling play structure (not to mention a newly installed basketball court) erected by parents, teachers, community members and local businesses over the weekend served as something much more than a place for kids to climb and swing and cavort during recess. For those donating their time, effort and resources to the project, this was a statement.

"I’d go out to the suburbs and see all these beautiful playscapes at schools and it would make me so angry," said Harms Principal Pat Diaz. "I’d think, ‘Why do their kids get and our kids not get?’"

So Diaz, with help from the nonprofit group Communities in Schools, set about seeing that her students got the message that they were as deserving as any other.

The school raised $25,000 through candy sales and other fundraisers. Grants were obtained from the likes of Mobil Oil and the Henry Ford Museum. The kids themselves routinely emptied their pockets of pennies, nickels and dimes, which eventually added up to a $1,300 contribution.

"I’m really impressed by all the mothers, fathers and kids out here," said Dave Burnley, whose Devon Construction company played a key role in generating support from the business community. Looking over the diverse group, which included volunteers from surrounding suburbs and a group of students from Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University. "It’s like one big family out there right now."

There is a temptation to compare the scene to an old-fashioned Amish barn raising, but the analogy would miss a big part of the point. Located on Detroit’s west side in a distinctly industrial area, there was nothing rural or homogenous about this community effort. The workers – black, white, brown – reflected the area’s diversity. And you don’t often see members of a biker gang pounding nails in Amish country. But that’s what happened at Harms with the dedication of the new play structure to the memory of Lila Riddle, a 10-year-old student who died when her home was firebombed last year.

Lila’s father, David, who died trying to rescue his daughter from the blaze, rode with the Highwaymen, said principal Diaz.

Although some folks in the neighborhood talked of revenge, Diaz said, the school channeled anger into "a positive symbol of peace and nonviolence."

Janet Ray, a project director for Communities in Schools, talked about the importance of the community involvement on display.

"With something like this, the process is as important as the product," said Ray, who was splattered with mud and wearing a black plastic garbage bag pulled over her work clothes in an unsuccessful attempt to keep dry.

"We’re sending a message to kids who are vulnerable that people care about them," said Ray, noting the area’s poverty. "This playscape is a symbol of that care."