Community effort well-played

by Jessica Langdon
jessica.langdon@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The first kindergartners Janet Schlake taught at Our Lady of Unity School here are now finishing seventh grade — but they’re not too old to appreciate a good playground.

In fact, many older students lent a hand when the parish community came together this spring to make the longtime dream of having their own playground come true.

The school held a ribbon cutting for its much-anticipated new playground on May 13, complete with a blessing from Father Kent O’Connor, pastor of Our Lady of Unity.

The kids finally got to explore their long-awaited, brand-new, shiny, red-blue-and-yellow playground for the first time.

Seventh-grader C.J. Puebla, who pitched in at the site on the workdays, remembers wishing for a playground when he was in Schlake’s kindergarten class.

Like many other kids, he made do with playing kickball and soccer on the field.

“We have pictures of our kids playing with rocks,” admitted principal Nancy Butters. “Those weren’t posed pictures.”

The school sent those photos — along with a grant application written by Donna O’Connor — to KaBOOM! in hopes of winning a Let’s Play Community Construction Grant.

Our Lady of Unity learned in the fall it had received the $15,000 grant, but that still left about $30,000 for the school to kick in.

For help matching the grant and building the dream playground, the school turned to community volunteers of all ages.

Schlake’s sister, Cathy Hair, is a fourth-grade teacher at Ascension School in Overland Park and she was first in line — eight years ago. That’s when she helped link her school to Our Lady of Unity, and the two have been sister schools ever since.

While students at Ascension pitched in on fund drives for the matching grant, students from Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan., were more hands-on, helping prepare the playground site for construction.

The grade school students themselves served the lunch prepared by the parish’s Knights of Columbus to the many teachers, parents and other volunteers who were installing the equipment and spreading the mulch.

Kathleen Ludwig, a first-grade teacher at Our Lady of Unity, even recruited her sister and fellow physical therapy students at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., to help with the work.

“This has been a big, Catholic, group effort,” said Schlake.

With the playground now complete, said Ludwig, the kids can climb and crawl and use their imaginations — and get that energy out.

“I think teachers are going to see a difference in the classroom of just a more focused group after recess,” said Ludwig. “Or maybe they will work really, really hard to get quiet for recess because they know what’s out there and they know it’s such a privilege and such an exciting thing to have.”

C.J. is excited his younger brothers will have this.

“I think it’s going to make the little kids more athletic because they can climb, swing, and do other stuff that will help them,” he said.

But he admits his own class will also enjoy checking out the new equipment.

There are still challenges ahead, admitted Butters, but they’re ones she’s delighted to tackle.

“We’re going to have to teach a lot of kids how to swing,” she said.

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