All in a Day’s Work

How an army of volunteers built the playground of Chattanooga children’s dreams

Dec. 19, 2017

A zip line!

A swimming pool!

A basketball court!

When you ask kids what they want on their dream playground, you never know what kind of answers you’ll get. But a recent project at the Salvation Army East Lake Corps and Community Center in Chattanooga started with just that question.

A behind-the-scenes look at this build from start to finish sheds light on how these incredible play spaces come together and create community in areas of need.

Finding a partner

Organizations interested in receiving a playground complete an application process through national nonprofit KaBOOM! They’re then interviewed and vetted to assess the community’s needs, and to learn how a playground will benefit the area.

In the case of the Salvation Army, the East Lake community lacks opportunities for equitable play.

  • They serve primarily children and families who are at-risk of violence and are suffering through financial instability, poverty or homelessness.
  • Many of the children the Salvation Army assists have experienced some level of trauma and need safe, welcoming spaces to play and be active.
  • Likewise, their parents and fellow community members need a place to come together, build relationships and strengthen ties.

“The Salvation Army is a beacon of light for people in the East Lake community,” says Captain Ruth Cancia, corps officer for East Lake. “It is a place where they know they will be safe, they will be fed and they will be cared for. I want families to be proud of the community they call home.”

It was Captain Cancia who had the vision for the playground.

“When I moved to Chattanooga from Florida, the first thing I did was walk around the East Lake facility. I saw the dilapidated state of the space and said, ‘I want to build a playground.’”

Following the application process and a round of interviews, KaBOOM! officially selected the Salvation Army as a community partner and planning got underway.

The kids have their say

Many people close to the KaBOOM! and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation partnership say the planning phase is their favorite part of the project. That’s because children from the community get to be involved. On Design Day, representatives from KaBOOM! and area volunteers meet at the facility to begin mapping out the play space.

Volunteers and KaBOOM! staff begin planning the playground on Design Day

After volunteers review the site and make initial plans, the children are gathered and given special design sheets and crayons.

They’re asked to draw their dream playground, and these drawings are used as inspiration for the final design.

On the Salvation Army’s Design Day, excitement was high. The children knew they were getting a playground, and they were anxious to take part. They ran toward tables with design sheets, crayons and markers and got to work. The resulting drawings included everything from slides and swings to, of course, zip lines and swimming pools.

Children design their dream playground

After designs were completed, Katrina Bitanga, KaBOOM! project manager the build, allowed each child to present their design and talk about the different components they hoped to see in the finished playground.

“Design Day allows us to get input from the kids in the community, collaborate with their parents, caretakers and other community members, and ensure that we have everything we need for Build Day,” says Bitanga. “We’re excited to build a brand-new play space where these kids will get to have fun, learn, explore and just be kids.”

Children pose with their playground designs

Laying the foundation

Organizing a playground build is a true team effort. The Salvation Army created a committee to oversee the project, headed by their own Major Robert Lyle and Captain Cancia. The committee was tasked with a lengthy list of to-dos, including:

  • Obtaining food and drinks for the build
  • Recruiting community volunteers, and
  • Overseeing utility checks for construction.

Beginning two months before Build Day, Bitanga held weekly planning calls with the committee to review needs, share news and updates, answer questions and ensure that the project was running on schedule.

When playground designs were submitted, she talked the committee through the options and helped them choose a layout that would meet the needs of the facility and the children it serves.

In addition, while the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation provided a grant for the playground, the Salvation Army East Lake Corps was responsible for raising around $8,500, or about 10% of the cost.

Can we build it? Yes we can!

On Build Day, hundreds of volunteers from BlueCross and the Chattanooga area arrived at the Salvation Army. They were given name tags with stickers, which divided them into groups for the day’s duties:

  • Team Car was in charge of the slither slide and whirl-a-round
  • Team Heart and Paw Print poured and mixed concrete
  • Team Mustache built a picket fence, and
  • Team Star hauled mulch.

Volunteers divide into teams and get to work

That’s just a sampling. Volunteers worked from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. with a brief break for lunch.

Inside the facility, a team worked diligently throughout the day to ensure that volunteers had food. Breakfast included fresh eggs, pastries and coffee, and lunch was hot dogs and a salad bar, complete with fresh vegetables chopped by hand.

Volunteers prepare vegetables for lunch

Outside, music played to keep energy high. Volunteers sang and danced as they worked.

In the end, thanks to some extra funding, the Salvation Army got two play spaces:

  1. The original playground they needed for their facility, and
  2. One that’s open to the rest of the community.

With enough work to keep 600 volunteers busy, 300 people constructed double the equipment of a typical KaBOOM! build, with experts on hand to ensure everything was safe and up to code.

In addition to the play spaces, the Salvation Army received new cubbies, park benches, picnic tables and artwork to decorate the space, all built by volunteers.

A joyful celebration

The 2:30 p.m. ribbon cutting was an emotional event with expressions of appreciation from Major Lyle and Captain Cancia. During the ceremony, KaBOOM! also thanked BlueCross for its partnership.

Major Lyle and Captain Cancia thank volunteers on Build Day

“The Salvation Army is a safe haven for children throughout the East Lake community,” said Major Lyle. “This amazing new playground will help rebuild families and restore this once vibrant area.”

On behalf of the BlueCross Health Foundation, Ashley Williams then presented an overwhelmed Captain Cancia and the Salvation Army with a check for $10,000 to support their work.

The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation presents the Salvation Army with a $10,000 donation, KaBOOM! recognizes BlueCross

Ties that bind

Since the playgrounds were completed, they have been crowded with children both from the Salvation Army’s youth programs and the surrounding East Lake area. Captain Cancia can hear them laughing and playing while she’s working inside, and the noise is a welcome realization of the vision she had for the area she serves.

And new connections have started to form between East Lake’s adult residents and volunteers who serve the area. The community member who skillfully managed food preparation for the build has officially been invited to join the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary and has assisted with their annual Angel Tree Program, which provides Christmas gifts for children in need.

Williams, who has represented BlueCross at all 18 KaBOOM! builds in Tennessee, says this is typical of what she sees.

“We’re not only building playgrounds, we’re building communities,” she says. “These events bring people from diverse backgrounds together to make a difference, and I’m proud that we’re a part of that process.”

Ashley Williams of BlueCross (center) stands with Captain Cancia and Major Lyle of the Salvation Army