Playgrounds bring school community together

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Students enjoy the new playground equipment at Sunnyside School during the grand opening.

Their focus is squarely on raising the money and helping assemble increasingly engaging, and expensive, playground equipment. In the process, however, those parents, students, staff and partners of Palliser Regional Schools are also building something else – community.

It’s truly a community project which unites the support of many .

Principal Connie Adserballe says the more than $200,000 playground and sport court project at Sunnyside School became a rallying point for all involved, much like a barn-raising bee of years past. The analogy is particularly fitting, given the barn dance the Lethbridge County school holds annually to raise funds.

She points out it was more than just the families of current students who raised the money and rolled up their sleeves to build the playgrounds,  it was also the extended community, including those whose children attended Sunnyside years ago.

“They have a real desire to see that this school thrives,” says Adserballe. “. . . I think Sunnyside has something special that you can’t put your finger on and aren’t aware of it until you’ve left and have time to reflect.”

She believes the playground can also serve as a drawing card for their school, which isn’t attached to a particular neighbourhood or community. Many of the students who attend Sunnyside come from the first generation off the family farm and are attracted to its rural feel and sense of community.

“We are the hub, because there isn’t a town hall that people can meet at. The school is where it is at,” says Adserballe.

It’s a similar situation in the bedroom community of Coalhurst, where the elementary school is centrally located and there are limited recreational facilities where youth can gather. As such, the recent playground build received plenty of support from all corners of the community.

Tara Grindle, a member of the Friends of Coalhurst Elementary School Society, says the work crew for the $280,000-playground included a family just new to the community as well as school staff and their family members.

“One of the really nice things I saw was a whole bunch of high school kids raking out all the wood chips,” she says. “It brought our two schools together. I think we really need to build that relationship so we are all one community.”

Since the province doesn’t provide any funding to build playgrounds, a playground contribution on behalf of a school division would mean fewer dollars available to be spent on the school itself. Palliser Regional Schools does provide ongoing maintenance for such structures once installed, but it is up to the community to raise the necessary funds.

Given the amount of time it takes to apply for grants and other monies available for such projects,  Adserballe says it would be a “daunting” task for school staff to tackle.

The key, says Grindle, is applying for smaller grants that don’t require matching funds so a balance can be built up in the fundraising account. Once that happens groups can set their sights on the “big fish” and their matching dollars.

The Friends of Coalhurst Elementary School Society benefitted from grants including: the provincial Community Facility Enhancement Program ($100,000); and major donations from the Town of Coalhurst ($61,000); Richardson Oilseed ($25,000); Lethbridge County ($21,000); Scotia Bank ($14,000); Farm Credit Canada ($10,000); Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta ($10,000); and Coalhurst Legion ($5,000).

It also received tens of thousands of dollars in in-kind donations from local businesses in preparation of the playground build and the actual installation.

In addition to the monies the Sunnyside Community Association raised over several years of barn dances, the new playground and sport court upgrade at the school received: a grant from the Community Facility Enhancement Program ($100,000); Farm Credit Canada ($10,000); and RBC Dominion Securities ($10,000).

The project also drew support from a number of local businesses, including employees from the nearby Pratt and Whitney plant, to help with the build.

Jennie Emery Elementary School in Coaldale is just wrapping up phase 2 of its playground build at a cost of more than $215,000. Among the major contributors were: the Community Facility Enhancement Program ( $111,000);  Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta ($15,000); Coaldale Community Wellness ($12,500); Kinsmen Club of Coaldale ($10,000);  Kinette Club of Coaldale ($10,000); Richardson Pioneer Foundation ($10,000); and Lethbridge County ($9,000).

With phase 1 just completed in the fall of 2015 at a cost of more than $222,000, the playground was also appreciative of the local support through donations in kind, including Ground Breakers Construction, which removed the old equipment and provided site grading.

Heritage Christian Academy in Calgary is another Palliser school busy raising funds to build a new playground, in its case, next summer.

Whatever the cost, Adserballe says playgrounds are a valuable resource.  Not only do they help younger students develop gross motor skills, they also provide a venue for children to learn how to play together.

“It’s much more than fun;  it’s an educational tool for kids,” she says.