How One Community Created a Masterpiece

Lorraine Gordon is affectionately known as “neighborhood watch” by residents of the Oakcrest Community in Beaufort County, NC, particularly the children she watches from her front porch as they play on the playground she helped build. She won’t tolerate bad behavior, but who wants to misbehave on a playground this awesome?

“We had been thinking about having something in the area for the children to do because we had this big old field, and it was just empty,” says Gordon, who serves on the neighborhood association board. “We said, ‘what about a playground? Let’s go to the Housing Authority and ask them if they can build us a playground.”

Gordon and her fellow board members pitched the idea to Marc Recko, CEO of the Washington and Mid East Regional Housing Authorities. As luck would have it, their request just happened to coincide with an offer from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s Healthy Places NC initiative to partner with KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that builds community playgrounds.

“This opportunity from KaBOOM! and the Trust would never have happened if the residents hadn’t already been organized and concerned about their neighborhoods,” says Recko. “As an administrator at the housing authority, I wouldn’t have done this with a lot of communities because it was a challenge. But I said, ‘This is perfect for Oakcrest.’”

Throughout a five-month planning process, Gordon took the lead on organizing her community for the playground build. “We had to get the community to come in for meetings, to get organized so that we would have different groups to do different things.  Just being able to get it done was a challenge, but we had a lot of people that wanted to participate. It was a lot of leg work, a lot of phone conversations, always something we had to stay abreast of.”

Oakcrest created seven different committees, with tasks ranging from fundraising for the build to site preparation to securing food for the build day. Gordon remembers the level of detail and the work required for preparation with a shake of her head. “We had to count every little screw, every nail. Everything was organized, I mean down to the screw. I am telling you, I counted screws and bolts and nuts and little chips of this and that, and it was amazing. Everything was in buckets, and everything was accounted for.”

Then, on a chilly, rainy December 7, 2013, some 120 people from the Oakcrest community and beyond showed up to get busy. Gordon greeted the Mayor and volunteers from the sheriff and police departments, the department of social services, the Salvation Army, Washington High School, the Boys and Girls Club, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and more.

“Build day was awesome,” says Gordon. “It was something positive for the community. It was something to wake them up to see that things can be done with the help of everybody. It was an eye-opener.

“I was out there about five-thirty [in the morning]. From that point until clean up at about six or seven that evening, it never stopped. Everybody was constantly working and if somebody needed something, somebody would run and get it. You had your little teams that worked with you on certain things. I ended up with just me and Mr. JJ. We worked together on the trashcan holder, with him screwing it in and me finding the screws.”

Now, more than a year later, as Gordon sits on her porch and watches children play on the new structure, she smiles as she considers what it means for her community.

“The playground is like a big toy. All winter long I’ve watched the kids go to the playground, on the monkey bars, the swings. Even on rainy days you see some kids out there just having a good time. It gives them a sense of knowing that they got somewhere to go and to be safe and then the parents can also keep an eye on them.”

For Gordon, the playground build is just the beginning. She has her eye on other projects as well. “We want to add some things out there. I was thinking about some bird baths or something so the kids will see the birds and things.” She also envisions some trees and a nearby basketball court, a high priority for the neighborhood’s older children.

“We’re going to have things happening out there that we’ve never seen before,” adds Recko. “I think the playground has a lot to do with that.”

Above: Lorraine Gordon welcomes all to the new Healthy Places NC playground in Beaufort County