They say that they’re just two moms who decided to build a new playground, and that is probably the understatement of the year. This year’s Theodore Winters Award winners, Emarie VanGalio and Moyra Barsotti, imagined the rebuilding of the old Robert Leathers wooden playground at City Park, and then proceeded to rally enough volunteer and financial support to make their dream a reality.
In October of this year, a new wooden playground emerged in place of the old one, surpassing everyone’s wildest dreams of how it might look. The proof was on the delighted faces of swarms of children who raced on the structure to play following the ribbon cutting on Oct. 15.
Just like the old one, the new one features towers, swings, slides and climbing structures, and all built by community volunteers over the span of one week. Some of the original play structure volunteer crew of 30 years ago turned out to help, and some of their children, now adults — including VanGalio — pitched in to make sure that their own children, and decades of children to come, would enjoy a wonderful playground here in Winters.
The Theodore Winters Award is given to someone who has made a major impact on the community within a short time span, and VanGalio and Barsotti inarguably have made the largest impact on Winters within this year, and possibly within a generation. The simple fact is that without their determination and tenacity, and the Project Playground team they created, there would not be such a whimsical and innovative structure at City Park.
VanGalio explains that she and Barsotti started forming a relationship as their own children played on the old structure, and both realized that it was so dilapidated that it was time to replace it. She says Julie McNamara, one of the original play structure crew, said the lifespan of the structure was only intended to be 20 years, and it was still standing 10 years beyond that.
They decided to contact the city about the need for a new structure, and presented a professional fundraising budget to show that they were serious. However, VanGalio says, the city’s public works director, Eric Lucero, told them, “Sounds great, but you’re too late.” He informed them that the city already had a grant to replace the structure, but it wouldn’t have been a new wooden one like the old one.
City Manager John Donlevy stepped in, however, and told the women, “You wanna do it? Go ahead.” And ahead they went, like an unstoppable fundraising machine.
“I don’t think they thought we’d actually do it,” says Barsotti.
VanGalio said that only made them more determined.
“If people doubt us… both of us are pretty stubborn,” says VanGalio.
Beginning in the fall of 2016, VanGalio and Barsotti’s Project Playground committee held multiple fundraisers and received grants. Although they originally were working with the Robert Leathers company on the actual design, they switched to Play By Design as the construction day drew near, finding this company more compatible with their vision of a new playground.
One of the first visible tasks for the new play structure was to tear down the old one, and VanGalio, who grew up playing on that structure, admits that she got teary-eyed as she watched bulldozers start chomping into it.
“So many of us are so sentimental about that playground. When it came down, I was crying, and thinking, ‘Oh my God, are we doing the right thing?’”
Barsotti had similar worries.
“Will it be an amazing playground? Will we like it as much?”
The answers to all those questions are a resounding yes — just ask the children playing there now.
By the time Build Week officially started on Oct. 9, Project Playground had surpassed its $450,000 fundraising goal, and VanGalio estimates that when the value of all the volunteer labor is factored in (about 11,500 hours, done over seven days, with three worker shifts per day), the project’s cost was over $1 million.
“This is the biggest monetary project I’ve been in charge of,” says VanGalio, who works as a director of marketing and branding in Napa, and has plenty of experience managing projects. Barsotti also has a background in retail marketing, being part of the Barsotti family growers in the Capay Valley, as well as managing rental property. Both agree that the playground project was by far the biggest challenge, and both faced it head-on, from beginning to end.
VanGalio, who is quick to praise all the volunteers who pitched in, says that as the project began shaping up, “hidden talent came out of the woodwork,” helping out with everything from database management to actual construction.
“We had a corps of volunteers,” says Barsotti.
Above and beyond simply building a play structure, both women say their overriding motivation was a love for the Winters community and all the children who grow up here.
“Winters is a great place to raise your family,” says VanGalio, and referring to the playground, adds, “This is what you do with your kids — go to the park.”
“Especially if you don’t want to buckle up all your kids and drive them to Davis or Vacaville,” says Barsotti, who moved to Winters in 2015. “I have always loved this playground. I came here from Capay.”
When the last nail was pounded and the ribbon cutting took place with a sea of community members and children in attendance, both VanGalio and Barsotti were happily exhausted. Just as she did when the old structure came down, VanGalio says she was in tears when the new one was finished. At the ceremony, they looked down at the crowd from atop one of the bridges with big smiles.
VanGalio said it was at that moment that she was really able to “wrap my brain around” the magnitude of such a huge and long-lasting success. “When we were done, I thought, ‘Omigosh, we did this!” She adds that she also felt a huge sense of pride in seeing the community come together to build a playground for the second time in her lifetime.
Barsotti says she and VanGalio were compelled to push Project Playground through, within budget and on time, but after the fact, admits that had they known at the start how challenging it would be, “we might not have done it.” “Might” being the key word, because she adds that the only way for things to happen is for someone to step up and do it.
“It’s not other people who are going to do something like this. I’m not that exceptional — anyone can take on a project like this. You just do it piece by piece.”
Besides taking on a huge task in small chunks, both women agree that each was the other’s support when the task ahead seemed difficult. Barsotti says she’d say, “We’ve got this. Emarie’s got this. I’ve got this” to give herself a pep talk when needed.
Although the effort — and the results — were/are huge, both women say the satisfaction of a huge job well done makes it all worth it.
“I feel pretty darn good all around,” says Barsotti.
“It’s really, really, really the most rewarding thing I’ve done besides having kids myself,” says VanGalio, adding that the comradery and community spirit of Build Week was “one of the best weeks of my life.”
“Like summer camp, times ten,” says Barsotti.
While both are enjoying this satisfaction — and surely relief that it’s all finished — both agree that being formally honored by their community for their efforts is the bow on the package.
“I feel honored… humbled… flattered… that people are able to recognize the time we put in for the last year and a half, and the sacrifices we made,” says VanGalio.
“It feels really good to be recognized for all our hard work, and it wasn’t just us, for sure,” says Barsotti.
VanGalio adds that she hopes their story will inspire others to do good things in the community as well.
“I hope other people can see that one person can make a difference… two people can make a difference… a steering committee can make a difference” and moreover that people will realize, “Oh, it is me who can make a difference.” In particular, she says, everyone who helped build the playground sets the standard for the next generation. “We’re setting a good example for the kids.”
Barsotti adds that she hopes others will realize that there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with the community, and encourages young parents in particular to find ways to engage.
“You don’t have an affiliation (to a group) to get involved or to volunteer,” and says that the successful Build Week showed the importance of “showing up in numbers and getting the job done.”
And now, it is the community’s turn to show up and thank VanGalio and Barsotti at the annual Winters Chamber of Commerce Toast to Winters celebration, planned for Saturday, Jan. 27, at Park Winters. Tickets are $85 per person, are limited in number, and must be purchased in advance. Tickets will be available on Jan. 2. Contact the Chamber for more information, 795-2329.