After almost two years of continual fundraising and rounding up help and volunteers, the bare patch of land at City Park where the old Robert Leathers playground stood for nearly 30 years sprang to life on Monday. Scores of volunteers turned out to dig post holes, rout the edges of posts and boards, and begin the framing for what will be the new community playground.
Like the playground before it, built by community effort in 1989, this new playground was funded by donations and is being constructed by volunteers. Project Playground coordinators Emarie VanGalio and Moyra Barsotti have been the driving force behind the entire effort, tirelessly chasing down donations and grants, and encouraging local residents to show up and help sand boards, pound nails and rake sand this week.
Both insist that the project really will be done by Sunday, when the towers will be installed with cranes and the fencing goes in, the final two stages of the project. Prior to that during build week, volunteers will be doing everything from checking the equipment that is coming in, like monkey bars and slides, pouring cement, and constructing framework. Those who are not handy with tools can help by preparing food for the workers.
Barsotti explains that the actual construction is being coordinated by Play By Design, which will direct the lead construction workers and assign duties each day. As for Barsotti and VanGalio, they are on site as general overseers, but for now, are taking the opportunity to catch their breath after a nearly two-year marathon effort.
“We’re handing it over to the community,” says Barsotti. “The people here really rallied to step up.”
Although both are pleased with the many people showing up to work on Monday, both expressed a bit of anxiety that there still aren’t enough people to get the job done, particularly Wednesday through Sunday of this week.
“What we need now are the bodies,” says Barsotti. “People have shown up and signed up, but we need more people, skilled and unskilled. It’s not someone else who’s going to build the park. Everyone counts.”
Likening the project to a baton race, VanGalio adds, “It’s up to the community to take the baton next. We’ve run the marathon. We’re tired. We’ve done our portion of the race. We’re ready to hand the build over to the community.”
Barsotti notes that she is pleased to see younger parents in the community chipping in, and VanGalio emphasizes that a project like this needs community involvement from everyone.
“I hope our kids and friends see the importance of a project like this,” says VanGalio. “In a community like this, it’s the people that need to step up and take on these kinds of projects.”
Some of the folks stepping up on Monday included Winters resident Denise Selleck, who usually spends her days as a nurse at the UC Davis Medical Center, but chose to volunteer at the park instead, and got on the job training using a power router. Taking a break from finishing some posts, Selleck said she was happy to chip in even though she’d never used power tools before. Now, she feels like a pro.
“I’m ready for my own HGTV show,” she says.
With two young children of her own, Selleck says she had extra incentive to participate.
“It’s a great project, and I have a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old. I love this town and I love doing these things.”
Cheryl Moore, co-owner of The Tree House preschool, was busy digging post-holes on Monday, and encourages others to come down and pitch in too.
I feel like every member of this community should be out here helping to build this park,” says Moore. “I can’t wait to see the finished project and know I helped make it a reality for Winters.
“What I love about Winters is we all come together to make things happen. When I heard about this project, I knew I wanted to be a part of Winters history.”
Mona Biasi, wife of Mayor Pro Tem Bill Biasi, also became an apprentice router on Monday.
“It’s a good opportunity to get to know a lot of people , and just to contribute.”
Even the mayor himself, Wade Cowan, along with his wife Kathy, were volunteering on Monday.
“We wanted to do it for our grandkids, and don’t all mayors and their wives do this?” he quipped.
Melanie Bajakian Pickerel, mother of VanGalio and amongst the volunteers who built the first playground in 1989, returned to City Park to help with the new playground. She recalls the first build as a “great experience working with friends and people I did not know at that time, and most importantly we needed a park for our children.”
She says that experience taught her what Winters is all about.
“Over the years, I’ve learned that this is what our little village does best, when the call comes in for help, we try to lend a hand. My dear friend Julie McNamara was the lead inspiration on bringing the first Robert Leathers Park to California, and she was a dynamic force, and of course the mission was accomplished.”
She admits that she had some initial concerns when Project Playground started up, but was impressed by all the time and effort that went into it.
“A couple years ago, my daughter Emarie and Moyra Barsotti were discussing taking over a long overdue rebuild of our old worn out park, it sounded overwhelming to me, the fundraising alone sounded impossible.
“They needed about $400,000, and as you know, they exceeded that campaign from many generous donors. Needless to say, I’m not surprised. These two women, just like Julie, are over-the-top dynamos. I know it’s not been easy, they’ve had many sleepless nights, meetings, getting supplies, organizing, and leaving their children with sitters or their husbands. It’s been a huge job, and not an easy task.”
She has nothing but gratitude for everyone involved.
“I want to thank all the dedicated hardworking ladies and gentlemen that are building our new park — you’re the best. Thank you Emarie and Moyra — you have been fearless, and you have pulled together the most incredible group of team leaders and community members.”
When asked why she decided to spend her time helping build yet another park, Bajakian-Pickerel says it’s all about the generations to come.
“It’s for our special town, our families, the new people moving here, our wonderful new babies that are being raised here, our visiting guests, and yes, this time around, it’s also for my five grandchildren, Leon, Samuel, Mary Elle, Livie and Eli Alexander. We are blessed to call Winters our home.”
And, she adds, volunteering is good for her own soul
“In all honesty, the real truth for me is simple: I’m best when helping others.”
In the park on Monday afternoon, looking out over the groups of busy bees taking on various tasks, Barsotti said it feels “great” to see all their effort take shape, and VanGalio agrees.
“It feels amazing at this point, after everything we’ve done for the last 21 months,” says VanGalio. “Building this playground exemplifies everything Winters is about — a small community with a big heart, working together.”
Besides serving as the energy for this project, VanGalio, Barsotti and the Project Playground committee started with nothing raised all of the money needed — and then some. They were so successful with the fundraising that they actually exceeded their goal and were able to add even more features to the new playground. However, more hands are needed to turn that money into towers and bridges and swings, and they’re needed right away if the goal of finishing on Sunday is to be met.
To get involved with this historic project that benefits the whole community, VanGalio says she’d prefer that volunteers sign up online at projectplaygroundwinters.com so they know how many people to feed each day, however, she adds, “We won’t turn away anyone who shows up!”
In addition to welcoming all volunteers, online and off, VanGalio, says they still need more routers and impact drivers. Find more information on the website, and also the Project Playground Facebook page.