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Community hands build Ann Arbor's Eberwhite playground for second time in 30 years

Families gather at the grand opening of the Eberwhite playground on Oct. 20, 2019. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)
Families gather at the grand opening of the Eberwhite playground on Oct. 20, 2019. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – Members of the Eberwhite community gathered Sunday to celebrate the grand opening of Eberwhite Elementary's new playground, built completely by local volunteers. 

But, this isn't the first time. 

In 1990, the community banded together to build its original, distinctive wooden play structures, which were deemed unsafe in 2018 after testing was conducted.

Parents, staff, students and neighbors kicked off fundraising efforts, including a Play-A-Thon in May, and have raised $278,833 of the $480,000 needed to complete two playgrounds on the school's grounds.

The playground is not just enjoyed by students, but by local children of all ages, serving as a community playground when school is not in session.

Project manager Andrew Smith at work on Oct. 17, 2019. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)

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Andrew Smith, a construction manager at the University of Michigan and an Eberwhite parent, was the project manager for the build, working day and night to make sure the project was completed in six days.

A volunteer himself, Smith said he saw an average of 255 volunteers a day split between three shifts. Over the course of the week, he worked with parents, the U-M wrestling team, nursing students and Rotary Club members.

"The enthusiasm of all the volunteers has been pretty remarkable," Smith said. "You know, folks showing up in footwear that they weren't expecting to get quite so muddy, but they dive right in. That's really been the most wonderful part of all of it."

Volunteers at work on Oct. 17, 2019. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)
Volunteer Katharine Joyce with the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors cuts out stars on wood panels for the playground's spires on Oct. 17, 2019. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)

Kristin Baker is a parent of two at Eberwhite, and her oldest graduated from the school. 

"I got involved because the kids need a new playground and this one is so beautiful," Baker said.
"I was here for 12 hours yesterday. I want to support the school in any way possible, and I want to support the parents who have spent hundreds of hours doing this (because) we use Eberwhite playground seven days a week."

Volunteers Heather Berry and Kristin Baker on day three of the build on Oct. 17, 2019. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)

One volunteer had a unique connection to this year's build because he was the Ann Arbor News reporter who covered the first build in 1990. 

This time around, Jeff Mortimer was manning the volunteer check-in desk, but nearly 30 years ago, he was pitching the story to his editor. 

"My recollection is that the idea of engaging students in the design of the playground was pretty innovative and I thought it was pretty cool," he said. "This was not a school board meeting."

Mortimer was touched when he received the email calling for volunteers and saw a link to his original story on the project's website.

Former Ann Arbor News reporter Jeff Mortimer volunteers at the Eberwhite playground build on Oct. 17, 2019. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)

"Part of it is, 'Oh my goodness, that was 30 years ago,'" he said. "But the other part of it is, not everyone has the chance to have their work still have a life 30 years later. I'm a big history buff; my only degree is in history, so I feel like I'm now a part of history, that I have left a record that if people want to know more about an old playground, or anything else that I covered, there I am."

Also there in 1990 was Beth Gilford, who had two daughters in school at Eberwhite. "Our (youngest) daughter was in kindergarten, and they had a job for them," she recalled. "They soaped the screws so that the screws would go in easier into the wood. And they felt very important. Everybody felt very important and it was great."

As for her job? "I was shoveling pea gravel."

Credit: Meredith Bruckner

First-grade teacher Richard Brisson, who's been teaching at Eberwhite for 23 years, said Eberwhite teachers have been spending more than 12 hours at school each day doing their day jobs and then helping with the build.

"I get here at 7 a.m. to get ready for the day, and we finish at around 8 p.m.," said Brisson.

At Sunday's ribbon-cutting ceremony, Eberwhite Principal Bill Harris thanked the volunteers, New York-based design team Play By Design and local businesses that contributed funds and food toward the build. 

As Harris spoke, dozens of children and their families lined the borders of the playground, ready to be the first in Ann Arbor to play on the brand-new structures. 

Children rush the Eberwhite playground following the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 20, 2019. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)
A girl plays a xylophone installed at the new Eberwhite playground on Oct. 20, 2019. (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)

With Phase I complete, the Eberwhite Playground Rebuild now looks ahead to Phase II -- the build of its third-to-fifth grade playground.

To learn more about the project, or to make a donation, click here

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About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.