More than 100 volunteers saturated Wildwood Elementary School on July 25-26 and left the campus transformed, said Cindy Murphy, a prekindergarten teacher at the school.
“I could not believe how many people came to help out,” Murphy said, adding that the project was started by a core group from a Southside church, The Chapel, who initially planned to install a new playground for the elementary children.
But that core group picked up more and more congregation members, said Kay Wallace, director of family life for the church, so they asked for a bigger wish list.
“Not only did they get the playground up, it turned into sort of a makeover for the whole school. And there were people there with every skill set,” Murphy said. “They cleaned out the garden boxes, which were full of weeds, and painted them, they cleaned and organized the textbook storage, helped set up teachers’ classrooms.
“When they clean the floors at the end of the school year, they have to take everything out of teachers’ classrooms, so when we get back to school, it’s almost like moving into a new apartment every year, so that help was a big deal to teachers.”
The Chapel volunteers are not strangers at Wildwood.
“We’ve had a mentoring program there for the past 10 years,” Wallace said. One volunteer is assigned to one child at the beginning of the school year and makes a commitment to helping his assigned student once a week.
It was during those interactions, Wallace said, that volunteers saw teachers and students working to raise money to build a playground for Wildwood’s prekindergarten program.
It took four years to raise the money, and no sooner than the nice, new prekindergarten playground went up on one side of the campus was the elementary school’s playground in another area of the school grounds deemed unsafe and taken down.
“Here was this beautiful playground and this empty space. It was a glaring need,” she said.
Every year, the youth classes practice a month of what they call sacrificial giving — giving up something of value and putting the money that would have been spent there toward a community need, Wallace said. “They may get Starbucks, or whatever,” she said.
And the classes saved $1,500. In addition, the larger congregation participates in Project Generosity once a year — this year, on Easter Sunday — in which the offering collected is donated to a worthy cause.
“We collected enough that day to more than pay for the playground equipment,” she said. They wanted to get it up and functional for the start of school Aug. 11 but weren’t sure how to go about it.
Luckily, Marybeth Lima and the Center for Community Engagement, Learning and Leadership was already on the case.
Lima’s group, the LSU Community Playground Project, uses student expertise and makes playground design into community projects for schools like Wildwood, Lima said. So far, the Playground Project has helped build 29 playgrounds in the area. Design students then consult with their clients — in this case, students — to find out what they want in a play area.
“So the playground design was already in the works when we came to them,” she said.
Lima’s group was able to accelerate the project with funding donated by The Chapel, which also paid for a consultant with the playground equipment company to supervise and certify the playground as safe, and wood fiber mulch to spread around underneath the equipment.
They saved money by providing the labor from the congregation, Wallace said, and that allowed extra funds to purchase new furniture for the school lobby, among many other projects.
As word spread about the workdays at the church and the slots for outside work filled up, there were plenty of people left who wanted to help.
So committees formed, and Wallace requested another to-do list and got it.
“It’s amazing what people coming together can accomplish,” said Murphy, who led the effort to build the pre-K playground and took on the work of coordinating things from the school’s end for this project, as well.
Help came in from outside the church, as well as Wildwood teachers, college students from as far away as Texas A&M, Boy Scouts, members of the Coast Guard and businesses — Walgreen’s, Campus Federal Credit Union, Aramark and the Volunteer Louisiana Commission.
“We had 50 to 60 volunteers there at all times,” Wallace added.
The Chapel has adopted Wildwood, she said, and plans to find more ways to support the students, teachers and parents there.
For information on The Chapel, visitthechapelnet.com.