Volunteers’ hard work builds playground for children’s shelter

HARLINGEN — “OK, you ready, Eddie?” asked Victor Leal.

The city commission held one side of a “monorail” as he and other volunteers prepared to install it in the ground. Once firmly in place, it turned out to be a rail with a handle children could grab and slide, or “zip-line,” down the rail.

About 150 volunteers had shown up to build a playground yesterday morning at the site of the future Valley Haven Emergency Children’s Shelter.

The shelter, at 5501 W. Business 83, will have 32 beds for children who have been removed from their homes. They’ll need a place where they can just enjoy being kids for a while.

Even yesterday, while the adults built a playground, children inside a pavilion painted pictures. Jimmy Buffet’s distinctive voice spilled from an amplifier, those familiar lyrics filling the air.

“Livin’ on sponge cake/watchin’ the sun bake/seein’ all those tourists covered with oil.”

Volunteers appreciated the gravity of their task.

“It’s good to be able to do this for the kids,” said Yudith Bahena, 35, from Blooms of South Texas.

“A lot of these kids have never had a playground,” Bahena said. “It’s a gift for them.”

Kristen Millon and her mother Gracie Bradwell, who founded the shelter, were both delighted by the turnout.

“It’s awesome,” Millon said. “We just want to thank everybody.”

“It takes a village to raise a child and this is our village,” added Bradwell.

Numerous entities, including the Harlingen Fire Department, HEB and Texas Beverage Association helped out. The Harlingen Police Department monitored traffic in and out of the area.

Students from Texas State Technical College also participated. Toni Luna, director of the college’s high school equivalency program, said about 20 of those students were at the site.

“It’s part of our curriculum, volunteering,” she said. “This is an opportunity for them to give back.”

Volunteers and onlookers got a feel for the excited generated by the playground as several people erected a bright blue slide.

“Watch for the holes,” said Cristina Luna, program manager with KaBOOM!

“I’ve seen it before,” she said.

KaBOOM! is an American nonprofit organization that helps communities build playgrounds for children. Luna said KaBOOM ! reached out to Valley Haven and told the organization about grants. Valley Haven applied and was awarded the funding to purchase playground supplies.

She was pleased yesterday with the turnout.

“Oh, my gosh we are having an awesome day,” she said. “It started with rain and now it’s sunny.”

KaBOOM! had partnered with Dr. Pepper Snapple Group which sent about 50 volunteers from Waco, Corpus Christi and San Antonio as well as local employees.

“Our company has done this since 2011,” said Oscar Valdez of DPSG. The rain was now turning the air muggy beneath the sun. Valdez wore a purple scarf beneath his hat as he shoveled mulch onto blue tarps. Two volunteers dragged them to the area where the equipment was being assembled.

Luna, who’d traveled from Washington, D.C., to observe the project, said there were 140 cubic yards of mulch.

“This is to make sure the playground is safe for the kids,” she said.

Even after depositing the mulch in the playground area, someone had to spread it out.

“We are trying to stabilize it so it’s not in their way, it’s easier to move there,” said Gordon Bradwell, 59.

With all the music and frivolity, everyone involved seemed to make it into a big party while working hard to assemble the playground. Perhaps that positive energy will linger in the play area waiting to inspire a child in pain.