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Playgrounds as the New "Coffee Houses"
Lessons from the Gulf Coast as it Rebuilds

Michelle Ryan, editor

This before image illustrates the damage War Memorial Park in Pass Christian, Miss. sustained from Hurricane Katrina. The population of the small town was cut in half and the majority of its residents were in temporary housing when the city began to face the intimidating task of rebuilding.

Situated on the Gulf of Mexico, Pass Christian was a town of unparalleled beauty along Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Known as "nature's gift" to the Coast, with its beautiful historic homes along Scenic Drive and "Christmas in the Pass" event, the small town was well known for its Southern charm and hospitality.

On August 29, 2006, Hurricane Katrina destroyed nearly all of Pass Christian's homes, schools and businesses. With its population cut in half and the majority living in temporary housing, the city faced the daunting task of rebuilding not just the physical structures that made up the community but the personal relationships that gave the community its soul. That rebuilding effort began in earnest at War Memorial Park.

More than 600 volunteers gathered one day to rebuild War Memorial Park. Over the course of just six hours, the eager volunteers worked side-by-side to construct a new playground, create a mosaic stepping stone walkway, plant a new butterfly garden and build picnic tables and benches. The new playground was the first permanent structure rebuilt in the town since Hurricane Katrina struck more than seven months before. At the end of the day, amazed residents said that the beloved park, a mainstay in the small town, was now even better than it had been before the storm.

The completed playground at War Memorial Park in Pass Christian, built by more than 600 volunteers along with the help of KaBOOM! a national nonprofit organization, included swings, a main structure, a play area for toddlers, a play web, and a Dino dig fossil sandbox.

The playground at War Memorial Park was one of 100 that KaBOOM! committed to build in the areas affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita through its Operation Playground initiative. Founded in 1995, KaBOOM! is a national nonprofit organization that envisions a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America. Each playground is designed by the children who will use it, planned by community members and built by volunteers in just one day.

Operation Playground was inspired by countless Gulf Coast communities who contacted KaBOOM! after the storms, wanting to rebuild not just the physical structures that were lost, but the feeling of being connected with one another. A community coming together to build a playground, can rebuild a sense of community as well.

In the aftermath of the hurricanes, all along the Gulf Coast, towns like Pass Christian rediscovered the value of their parks and playgrounds as community gathering places, not just for special events, but everyday activities. As friends and neighbors began to return to the places they once called home, they discovered the need for places to meet was greater than ever before.

Playgrounds became the new coffee houses, where parents could connect while the children played. With so many residents relying on cell phones and Internet connections, hard to come by in temporary housing, parks became the places to go to find the latest news, catch up with friends and make new ones.

On Build Day at War Memorial Park, children created mosaic stepping stones with pieces of pottery and china recovered from the debris. The new playground was the first permanent structure rebuilt in the town since Hurricane Katrina struck more than seven months before.

In the beginning, residents embraced their parks out of sheer necessity; there simply were no other safe places for children to play and fewer places still for adults to meet and connect. As months passed and more options began to be available, residents continued to utilize the parks and playgrounds more than ever before.

Amid the debris and rebuilding effort in the Gulf Coast, there has emerged a renewed appreciation of parks and playground and the role they play in our communities. It is a lesson we should all embrace.

Source: KaBOOM!

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December 8, 2019, 7:51 am PDT

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