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The playground volunteers built

About 500 people a day of all ages and abilities worked six long days to make Port’s Possibility Playground a reality

Hundreds of people stood in Port Washington’s Upper Lake Park Sunday stunned by the finished product but even more amazed by the phenomenon they had witnessed.

Volunteers — an average of 500 a day — shoveled dirt, drilled holes, sawed boards, pounded nails and sanded corners 12 hours a day for six days until Possibility Playground was finished.

On Friday, four days into the project that began at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16, 532 people worked on the playground. Consultants from the New York firm that designed the structure said they have never seen such a turnout on a night typically reserved for high school football games and dinners out.

On Saturday, the legion of volunteers swelled to 696 as the project dubbed Impossibility Playground by some doubters appeared inevitable.

They came from all walks of life and were of all ages. Eighty-nine-year-old Elmer Adam of Port Washington manned the registration booth while Weldon and Louise Reed, 84 and 82, also of Port, worked all six days managing the tool trailer. Ten-year-old middle school students came after classes to help their moms and dads build or deliver water to workers.

They came from miles around, compelled to help build a playground designed for all children, including those with disabilities.

“I worked with two women from Okauchee and Glendale who were on their way to work this morning when they heard about our project on the radio,” said Jeff Wozniak of Port Washington. “They called their boss to say they wouldn’t be in, drove to Port Washington and worked on the playground for 10 hours.”

Mostly, though, they came from Port Washington and nearby communities to take part in a volunteer effort they said had to be experienced to be believed.

“This has been a heck of a lot of fun,” said Doug Cvetkovich of Port Washington, who came to the playground every night after work with his 11-year-old son Kyle. “I’m actually sad it’s over. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do after work now.”

They were people like Nancy Haacke, who worked on the playground with her husband Allan, a Port Washington alderman and former special education teacher.

“I’ve lived here a long time and I’ve never seen anything like this, all these people coming together to build this playground,” she said. “It’s like Field of Dreams.”

Bill Bolles of Mequon said, “The media pooh-poohs all of us in the Midwest as some sort of simpletons, but my gosh, just take a look at what we’re doing here. I’m so delighted to be a part of this.”

They came from large construction firms like CG Schmidt and J.H. Findorff & Son which assigned dozens of employees to the playground project, and local firms like J&H Heating, which in addition to manpower provided equipment and tools.

They came from colleges like the Milwaukee School of Engineering and Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon.

A playground so large — roughly the size of a football field — that it needed an army of volunteers to build got a helping hand from the U.S. Navy, which sent a force of more than 50 sailors. The Coast Guard also signed on.

No one worked harder than the 17 construction captains who organized the mass of volunteers into a surprisingly productive work force.

Mark Karrels of Port Washington took a week of vacation to help supervise the project.

“This is honestly the best vacation I’ve ever taken,” he said. “Sore muscles, bee stings, sunburn and I loved every second of this project. Seriously, I had the time of my life working with all these people.”

John Dohrwardt Jr., who works for Fine Line Carpentry, said, “This is the most amazing experience I’ve had the honor to be a part of.”

Mark Doll, a sheet-metal worker for J&H Heating who served as a captain, said, “When I first heard about this project I thought it sounded pretty neat, but now I can’t get enough of it. It got personal for me. I really wish it was still going on.”

People who couldn’t participate in construction work found other ways to contribute.

When it became clear that there wasn’t enough food and water for the massive work force, organizers issued a plea for help.

“I was blown away by the response,” steering committee member Stacy Peters said. “People were pulling up in vans dropping off case after case of water.”

Greta Schanen, a member of the steering committee, said, “One elderly woman drove up and said her husband wanted so bad to help but had a broken rib, so the least they could do was buy water for the workers. There must have been 200 cases of water donated the day after we said we needed help.”

About 20 area restaurants donated food for the lunches and dinners that were served every day, steering committee member Carol Lemke said. Church groups and civic organizations also brought food, so much that a donated refrigerator truck was used to store leftovers until the next day’s meal.

Other volunteers, including high school students, manned the child care center set up at the nearby Port Washington Yacht Club. On Friday night alone, more than 140 children were cared for as their parents worked on the playground.

The project amazed even the three consultants from Leathers & Associates, a firm that specializes in community-built playgrounds and designed Possibility Playground.

“I’ve done between 140 and 150 builds and I can honestly tell you it doesn’t get any better than this project,” said Lee Archin, who is from Ithaca, N.Y., but farms in Iran when he’s not building playgrounds. “The people here are just fantastic. To see them all working together is incredible.”

David Johnson, a Leathers & Associates consultant from Menomonee, said, “There is something magical about this project. Who could believe that 2,800 volunteers of all different skill levels and abilities could come together to make this happen in six days.”

The project even shocked its truest believers — Mardy McGarry, a special eduction teacher from Port Washington who conceived the idea of Possibility Playground, and Sue Mayer, whose son Sam has Down syndrome and joined McGarry in leading the grass roots group that spearheaded the project.

“I thought I had a pretty good handle on how this project was going to happen, but even I had no idea how amazing it would end up being,” McGarry said. “It was not just a playground project; it was a community event. Port Washington needs to be so proud that it pulled together to get this done.”

Mayer said, “I’ve lived in Port Washington all my life and this is the first project I’ve seen with so much community involvement.

“I never dreamed this many people would help, and they’re still stepping forward.”

Although the structure was finished Sunday, a handful of volunteers were at the playground this week redoing parts of what they had built.

“One woman begged to come back and redo some of the bricks on the castle,” Schanen said. “She said some of them didn’t look quite right and that she couldn’t stand knowing that it wasn’t perfect.”

When Paul Drews, owner of Drews True Value in Port Washington, found out that the playground committee had to purchase a handful of expensive tools that were not donated, he offered to buy them from the group, Mayer said.

“And when he heard about our pledge that we’d return borrowed tools in the same condition or replace them, he said he would take care of any problems for us,” she said. “This project was like that. People stepped up to do whatever they could.”

Possibility Playground was a foreign concept to many when McGarry proposed it to the Port Washington Kiwanis Club, of which she is a member, a year-and-a-half ago. The club, although it has remained involved in the effort, quickly realized the undertaking was too great for one service club.

A steering committee was formed and the concept quickly became a tangible plan, with schoolchildren naming the playground and conceiving several of its features, such as the replica of the Port Washington lighthouse, a castle and police car.

The focus then turned to raising the $450,000 needed to build the structure. Money came in slowly at first, then larger donations and grants started making a significant dent in the cost.

The start of the project rekindled fund-raising as people lined up to sponsor the playground by buying fence pickets bearing the names of their children or other loved one, even pets in a few cases.

“The sale of pickets was crazy during the build,” Peters said. “People wanted to do anything they could to be part of this.”

Volunteers were putting hundreds of dollars in cash in donation containers as they left the site. One woman whose son and husband worked long hours on the project sent a $1,000 donation.

Months of fund-raising and promotion culminated in the six-day building project, a logistical challenge of near epic proportion.

The three consultants from Leathers & Associates, the only paid people on site, worked with the volunteer captains, who in turn organized a work force of diverse ability.

At first, however, it looked like there would be no work force to manage. A day before the project began, seven people had signed up to work Friday night.

“The guys from Leathers were pretty concerned,” Mayer said. “Then people just started coming out of the woodwork. We had hundreds of volunteers show up. The project took on a life of its own.”

Skilled volunteers set to work building, while those who didn’t know how to use power tools shoveled and raked dirt, painted, hauled lumber and helped out anywhere they could.

But this was also a learning experience for many. People who had never built anything were using power saws and drills by the end of the project after some instruction from the captains.

“Our build captains were amazing,” McGarry said. “These were very skilled guys who took the time to teach people how to build so they could be a part of this project.”

Aside from a few prefabricated pieces, such as slides and swings, the playground was built from scratch. That, organizers said, may have been part of the attraction for volunteers.

“People came one day, then kept coming back day after day,” said Melissa Niemeyer, who coordinated the volunteers. “They wanted to finish what they started.”

Holly Sutinen of Saukville, who spent Tuesday, the first day of the project, hauling lumber, was drilling holes and driving screws by Friday.

“This is totally addicting,” she said. “I can’t stay away.”

By Sunday, proud volunteers were referring to specific features of the playground as “their lighthouse” and “their castle” as they carried their young children on their shoulders to show them what they had built.

“People really took ownership of this project,” Niemeyer said.

At 5 p.m. Sunday, work stopped. The project, with the exception of concrete work, was finished. Volunteers, many with tears in their eyes, stood staring at what they had done, shaking hands and hugging one another.

“People say small towns and close-knit communities are disappearing,” Mayer said. “Not here. Just look as what this community came together to accomplish. The only word for it is amazing.” —By BILL SCHANEN IV Ozaukee Press 9-24-08

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