Sandra Shafer: making big dreams come true – recreation advocate

Thousands of children in the area of Lexington, KY, play each day on safe, fun, and beautiful playgrounds. And they have Sandra Shafer to thank.

Ms. Shafer isn’t a builder, a playground equipment manufacturer, or even a benevolent millionaire. She’s a housewife, an average citizen and member of her community. But she’s an average citizen with big dreams who knows how to make them come true. She is a new member of NRPA’s Citizen Board Member Branch representing Kentucky.

In 1988, Ms. Shafer heard about a new concept in playground design and construction and brought the idea to her community and made it a reality.

Like a Barn-Raising

“It’s much like a barn-raising. Everyone works and eats together. Even kids and the elderly get involved with small but important tasks,” says Ms. Shafer. The end result is a beautiful new playground and park, built by members of the community with tools and materials for which they themselves have raised the money and obtained donations. “And the kids swarm all over the finished playground because they’ve been involved in the process. Their ideas are sought up-front and included in the playground’s design,” added Ms. Shafer.

Although she selected the playground designer for the project, Ms. Shafer and members of her community did most of the work. She developed a 501-C3 (charitable) organization for fundraising purposes and went about the tasks of organizing committees and activities.

“For fundraising, we created a group called ‘Friends of the Park,’ a non-profit group,” says Ms. Shafer. She also organized working committees and groups to handle volunteers, fundraising, child care, and other aspects of the project. The groups met as frequently as needed.

Fundraising, of course, was among the most difficult and important parts of the project. “If the day comes to start building, and you don’t have enough materials and tools, there won’t be a playground,” observes Ms. Shafer. Not to underestimate the other aspects, Ms. Shafer quickly adds, “If you have materials and tools but no volunteers, you won’t get a playground either.”

Fundraising from Scratch

A novice fundraiser when she tackled her first playground, Ms. Shafer heard “by word of mouth” about federal government and community development block grants and successfully learned how to obtain them. She also learned to be creative, “negotiating” with local businesses to make the most of what these organizations were willing to offer. “We do a lot of begging,” laughs Shafer, adding, “We ask everyone to donate something.”

“We try to keep the dollars in the community,” notes Shafer, adding that she goes to local companies for donations of hardware, tires, and ground cover (sand, etc.). Often, however, specific types of lumber and other construction materials are needed, and this requires going wherever this material is available to obtain it.

Shafer also got involved in community fundraising opportunities such as setting up booths at school and community fairs and functions to obtain donations and sell items such as t-shirts. Her group also participated in the local July 4th parade. Ms. Shafer notes that the funds raised through these activities are small but that the good will and public awareness they bring are priceless.

Of course, the experience and contacts gained during the construction of the first playground were used in fundraising for subsequent ones.

How do you get people to give their time and energies to such a big task? Ms. Shafer says that she goes to surrounding schools near the playground to be built and announces the project at a meeting. Parents and others in the community are invited to attend. “We tell them about the different needs and let people bring their own experience and interests to their involvement,” says Ms. Shafer. She also goes to local churches and other groups and asks them to place an announcement in their bulletins and newsletters. Ms. Shafer’s committee members often wear more than one hat, she notes.

Phases of Playground-Raising

There are three aspects to the playground-raising process:

* Design day, during which the playground architects meet with kids to get their input and hear about their wishes and desires for the playground. For example, “one little boy said he’d like to slide down an elephant’s trunk,” says Shafer, adding, “So we have something that does indeed look like an elephant’s trunk that the kids can slide down.”

* Organization day, at which a representative of the firm meets with the volunteer team at the site to analyze the project and tell the group what they will need to get in terms of tools and materials they will need, how many volunteers they should have, and what the cost will be.

* Construction week. This is the actual playground/park-raising, which runs from Wednesday through Sunday. This is when the volunteers show up, child care and food are provided, and the actual work is done. Under the supervision of the playground design firm, Ms. Shafer and her 12-15 volunteer foremen–50% of them are women–oversee the work.

One week before construction week begins, a groundbreaking is held. This is an opportunity to recognize sponsors and contributors publicly and get volunteers excited about the upcoming construction.

When the playground is completed, there is an atmosphere of exhilaration, Ms. Shafer says. “People are thrilled that they were able to do something that they didn’t think they could do. It often give folks the confidence they need to pursue similar challenges in their own lives–like building a deck for their house or other projects.” Because they have played a role in building it, community members take ownership of the new playground and surrounding park. “The sense of ownership and camaraderie that this type of project builds is irreplaceable,” Ms. Shafer observes.

As of September 1, Ms. Shafer was in the final planning stages for an October 5-9 construction week for yet another–her fourth–playground. But she never loses her energy for the long hours and hard work, and she remains enthusiastic.

Dreamers are a dime a dozen. Heroes are much, much harder to find. But you don’t have to look far in Kentucky to find one of each embodied in Sandra Shafer, housewife, hero, and citizen in perpetual action.

COPYRIGHT 1994 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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