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Volunteers Come Together

"We want a dragon with three heads!”

“It should have laser eyes and breathe fire!”

“In its stomach should be the skeleton of a knight that got eaten!"

Children shouted out ideas for a play area, at the enthusiastic urging of Robert Leathers, founder of Leathers and Associates, a playground architectural firm from Ithaca, NY. Leathers was visiting classrooms in Missoula, Montana, at the invitation of volunteers who wanted to construct a spectacular, community-built play area next to Missoula's community-built Carousel.

Even before it opened in 1995, volunteers dreamed of ways to encourage families to spend more time together in and near the Carousel. A play area was the perfect answer, but only if it was the perfect play area—one that complemented the Carousel and met the high standards set by those who made that community treasure. Plans were made and discarded. Finally, Leathers was asked to conduct a Design Day where children (and a few adults) were invited to share their ideas. By day's end, Leathers had sketched the first draft of a play area which would eventually be called Dragon Hollow.

In the seven months following Leathers' visit, coordinators recruited volunteers, raised almost $200,000, begged local and national companies for materials and services, arranged for food and child care to be provided for all volunteers, borrowed tools from everyone in town, and hauled over 1,000 pavers and bricks, and hundreds of squares of Trex, a plastic wood, to area schools to be decorated. During three wet, cold days in April, 150 holes were dug next to A Carousel for Missoula in Caras Park, posts were set and the enclosed structure which would become a three-headed dragon guarding a castle began to take shape. Each of those three days, groups of 75 volunteers worked four hour shifts, stopping only to eat and stretch. At the end of that time, all were astonished at how much had been accomplished, and how much had to be done to prepare for the main build in May.

At sunrise on May 15, 2001, volunteers began arriving at the site. By sunset on May 21, over 4,000 people had given time, skills, materials, tools, food, sunscreen, advertising and the million other talents and tangibles needed to tame a dragon. Montana Power Company and Missoula Rail Link each sent an auger truck to drill holes for posts. Every employee of the local Home Depot worked at least one shift constructing the play area, and the store donated many of the materials used in the play area. United Building Center provided the Trex which was used for decking, hand rails and decorative touches. Community Hospital rounded up volunteers and construction companies sent machinery and workers. Bill Caras, owner of Caras Nursery and Landscape, donated time and materials for a drip irrigation system for the Carousel's landscaping back in 1995. In addition, he donated plants and sod for the Carousel's landscaping, and his family adopted a horse on the Carousel which they named American Beauty.

Tire and strap swings, slides, bars, rings for swinging, a climbing wall and other obstacle course components give children the illusion of risking life and limb, but the experts at Leathers & Associates, like the volunteers behind Dragon Hollow, kept safety first in all aspects of the design. The surface of the play area is built 16 inches above the surrounding land. A layer of landscape fabric sits on the bare ground, covered with four inches of gravel for drainage. Another layer of landscape fabric separates the gravel from 12 inches of FIBAR, a specially treated wood chip material. The product is an excellent ground cover because of its superior cushioning properties, and it makes the play area completely wheelchair accessible. It has the advantage of not leaving slivers of wood in tiny toes as other wood chips often do.

I became involved with A Carousel for Missoula as a volunteer in 1991, and became its Executive Director when it opened on May 27, 1995. As general coordinator of Dragon Hollow, I was in charge of coordinating the activities of all volunteers and acting as a liaison with the committee chairs, City of Missoula and Leathers & Associates. It was a wonderful experience that I'll never forget. Children of all ages will enjoy the site for many years to come.

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October 20, 2019, 8:13 pm PDT

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