Rich Brisson woke up at 3 a.m. on a Friday last October with an idea.
All week, the first-grade teacher at Eberwhite Elementary School had seen hundreds of volunteers assemble daily on the school’s east side, some to build a new playground and others to feed, equip, and organize the folks doing the building. A few teachers had brought their students outside to cheer for the crews, and thank-you signs had been posted in classroom windows facing the site.
Brisson wanted to do more. “We were trying to find different ways to show appreciation for the volunteers,” he recalls, “but this was the last day of the build before the weekend, and I wanted to do something memorable.”
Then it hit him. “The volunteers were champions for our kids,” he thought, “because they were building the playground.” He texted his teacher colleagues at 5 a.m. and knew by the time he left for school that they were on board with his plan: make a big sign reading “You are our champions!,” have as many kids as possible sign it, then unfurl it for the volunteers while all the kindergarten, first-, and second-grade classes cheered and Queen’s classic hit “We Are the Champions” played as loud as Brisson’s phone could play it, via a speaker and extension cord he brought from home.
Many of the participants in the months-long project–planning and fundraising had begun early last year–likened it to an old-fashioned barn raising or the movie Field of Dreams, but it was also history repeating itself, as much as it ever does.
Eberwhite has two playgrounds, one for the lower grades and one for the upper. Both were built in five days in May 1990 via a comparable community effort mobilized by the school’s PTO, which insisted on that unconventional arrangement (against the advice of its consultants) because students tended to group themselves that way anyway.
This time around the 1990 playgrounds are being replaced in phases. The PTO decided to build the new lower-grades structure as soon as it had raised enough money while continuing to fundraise for the second playground for the upper grades. But the multi-generational level of community engagement is the same.
More than 700 volunteers put in nearly 5,000 hours over the six days of the lower-grades build. They included parents, neighbors, U-M students and athletes, and members of service organizations. At least a dozen of them had worked on the 1990 playground.
A food committee served between 800 and 1,000 lunches and dinners, virtually all of them prepared and donated by local restaurants, during the week, as well as providing a breakfast buffet with fruit, pastries, and hot beverages. There were also committees to recruit and organize volunteers, arrange for and supervise off-site babysitting, obtain and track thousands of tools and construction hardware, and, of course, raise money.
“There was a whole army of folks that made it possible for us to be there every waking hour for a whole week,” says Joshua Brugeman, one of six dads who volunteered as construction crew supervisors, which meant taking a week off from work to work even harder. They were on-site for every shift, overseeing multiple crews at a time–one might be screwing down deck boards, another spreading mulch.
“We were there a few minutes before seven a.m. and usually left around nine p.m.,” Brugeman says. “We started with the lights on and ended with the lights on.” The supervisors were under the aegis of the only paid workers on the project: three foremen from Play by Design, the consultants hired by the PTO.
“All they do is community-built playgrounds,” Brugeman says, “so they know how to come in and take hundreds of people who don’t know how to build a playground and build a playground.
“They met with the community and students and did a design charette to come up with the initial concepts, then put together the construction specs that we fundraised against and built. And, probably most importantly, they’re the ones responsible for it being built to code and meeting all safety requirements.”
That latter consideration was especially pertinent for the Eberwhite folks. In 1990, they simply wanted to have new playgrounds that were built by the community. In 2019, they had to have new playgrounds when it was discovered, almost accidentally, that the existing ones failed to meet safety standards that didn’t even exist when the playgrounds were built.
The school had planned to use its $120,000 share of funds the district distributed to elementary schools for playground enhancements on a natural playscape near Eberwhite Woods, west of the school grounds. But when a district inspector visited the school in connection with that project, he also looked at the iconic playgrounds.
“He said, ‘These are not up to code, these have to come down,'” recalls Sarah Lindsay, a first-grade teacher at Eberwhite and one of Brisson’s coconspirators on the “champions” tribute. “The people at the meeting where that came to light were all a little bit shocked. We thought the money would enhance the beautiful playgrounds we already had. No one at Eberwhite wanted to take them down.”
The PTO hired an outside expert for a second opinion, but it matched the first. And $120,000 was only a quarter of the eventual $480,000 needed for the replacements, even with all those volunteers. If history didn’t repeat itself, there wouldn’t be much of an Eberwhite playground.
“A lot of us, when we heard the playground had to come down, said we can’t replace it with something less than what those people did,” says Brugeman. “That would be a disservice to them.”
“There was a fear, to be perfectly honest, that it would not be as enjoyable or satisfying as the previous one,” says Eberwhite principal Bill Harris. “The bar was set very high. It was hard to imagine we could recreate something as special as what they did, and yet we did.”
Andrew Smith, an Eberwhite parent and neighbor, cochaired the PTO’s playground committee and was its project manager for the build, although he wasn’t on site quite as much as the crew supervisors. “I tried to work my day job a little bit on Wednesday and Friday,” he chuckles. He’s a project manager there, too–he works for U-M’s architecture, engineering, and construction unit.
For him, there was a little extra incentive. “There’s always that reputation that the next generation isn’t as hardworking as the prior one,” Smith says. “If the time had come for the district to take the old structures down, it felt like a call to action to uphold the same level of commitment and sense of community that my neighbors had thirty years ago.”
The lower-grades playground already stands as proof of this generation’s commitment. And they’re not done yet. Principal Harris says they’re again working with Play by Design to plan the new upper-grades playground on the school’s west side. The volunteers will be back in October to build it.