Bad things can happen sometimes when children play on the streets, but it was all good in the north Baton Rouge neighborhood of Glen Oaks West on Saturday.
Baton Rouge police closed off a block of Oaklan Drive and Sumrall Street between Beechwood Drive and McClelland Drive for the second Saturday in a row for a community initiative called “Play Streets.”
A coalition of local agencies and churches transformed the streets into a long, safe playground complete with a bounce house, basketball games, hula hoop contests, balance beams, obstacle courses and a half-dozen pavilions promoting positive activities.
Two large grills were cooking up healthy, free turkey burgers, which those attending could enjoy with a variety of outdoor picnic-style fixings.
“We’re trying to see if ‘Play Streets’ increase physical activity for the children and to see if it helps the people in the neighborhood get to know each other more and feel like their environment is safer,” said Robert Newton Jr., an assistant professor with Pennington Biomedical Research Center, one of the event’s sponsors.
The same activity occurred last weekend, with several additional walking and running events, and will be held again Saturday, June 27, Newton said.
A similar series of “Play Streets” will be held in the Brookstown neighborhood July 18 and 25, and Aug. 1.
Stephanie Broyles, also with Pennington, said a crew of volunteers has been surveying the neighborhood residents.
“We’re piloting this concept, and if the concept works, we will work with folks like Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards and other officials to find out how we can craft policies to meet the needs of the neighborhoods.”
“All of this unfolds under the umbrella of having a healthy community,” Edwards said in a phone interview. “This speaks volumes of how important it is for our children and our families to get out into the fresh air and be a part of what is going on in the neighborhood.”
A large grill and overflowing food table, operated by volunteers from The Chapel on Campus, was set up in the driveway of the Rev. Donald Hunter’s home.
Hunter, pastor of New Beginning Baptist Church, said the initiative has multiple goals to improve the physical, social and spiritual health of the neighborhood and, actually, the entire city.
He said Pennington is dealing with the physical health of the community’s residents while his church and The Chapel on the Campus tend to their spiritual health, “where neighbors look out for neighbors” in accordance with Christ’s teachings.
The neighborhood property owners association is dealing with the external environment along with the city and the Police Department, Hunter said. There were at least a dozen uniformed officers visiting with residents, playing basketball with the kids and directing traffic at either end of the street.
“We’re here because we want to give back to the community,” said Lt. Robert McGarner Jr., a commander with the Baton Rouge Police Department’s BRAVE. program. “Normally people see us in one role, when we come in and take care of problems — to arrest someone, something of that nature — but we come to events like this so they can see us in a different light.”
Most of the playground type of equipment was provided by the Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission, which had a large truck loaded with gear it regularly takes to public events like this.
“This gives young people an opportunity to participate in activities they otherwise wouldn’t have access to,” said Diane Drake, a BREC assistant director of partnerships and evaluation. “We’re bringing it to them so they won’t have to cross unsafe streets to get to a park.”
Velma Barnes, a longtime resident and vice-president of the neighborhood association, said she was pleased to see dozens of neighbors out visiting.
“We just want to spread love and joy and let them know this is a safe neighborhood, and they can play here,” Barnes said as she dodged kids riding small, electric cars down the middle of the street.
Harold Williams, 44, grew up here, is raising his children here, and his parents live here.
“The most important thing about this is that we are networking and getting to know each other,” Williams said. Diane Shelly, who moved into the neighborhood in 1957, said it’s important to have a safe space for children.
“We want the children to know that we are here for them,” she said.
Earnestine Ellis talked about the importance of events like ‘Play Streets’ to the community as she watched daughters Korrin and Khloe, both 7, swirl hula-hoops.
“We’re doing this to keep the children active and keep them out of trouble while school is out,” said “We are all getting together and learning who are neighbors are so we can help each other.”