Nearly 30 years ago, a community build raised the timbered, tower-topped Melissa Jones School (MJS) playground. News of the big build drew New York Times coverage. More important, it built memories for kids and adults who still look back with nostalgia and pride.
Sara (Levesh) Prior was just 11 years old and a member of the last 5th-grade class to attend MJS when she helped build the playground in 1989—she was even quoted in the Times’ article. Now, she’s chairing the Melissa Jones PTO Playground Revitalization Project Committee with a goal of raising $150,000 and gathering an army of volunteers to build the next-generation MJS playground this August.
Now a parent of two MJS kids, Sara’s more like a steward of the playground than a project chairperson. Anyone who hears her talk about it knows she’s planning this project from the heart.
“My position is not about me, it’s about what those before me created; that infectious sense of pride and community,” says Sara. “It’s about my children, the community’s children, and those who have created memories here, and I am honored to have been passed the torch.”
A huge amount of legwork arrived with the passing of that torch. With input from students and members of the MJS community, Sara and the committee are making sure the new playground captures the essence of those iconic structures everyone loves, while working to put on a community build none will soon forget.
Together with equally enthusiastic committee member Michelle Doheny (as a 4th-grader at MJS in 1989, Doheny also helped build the playground), about two years ago, Sara began mapping out how to get this huge project off the ground. An MJS-based campaign, officially launched in October 2015, has already generated 25 percent of the $150,000 goal.
The public can make a purchase at the MJS Playground online store or click on the donation link; both are at the MJS Playground website http://mjsplayground.weebly.com. Options range from buying a commemorative brick or T-shirt to making a direct donation. The project committee is a 170(c)(1) organization and donations are tax exempt to the extent allowed by law. There’s also a long list of in-kind donations that can be contributed to help defray costs; contact the committee to learn more.
“The design company has provided a complete list of items we need that can be donated; from markers and spray paint down to nylon string, duct tape, how many screws and how many saw blades,” says Sara.
Guilford Fund for Education (GFFE) has signed on as fiscal sponsor to help maximize larger contributions from businesses with matching donation options. Matching donations can be made to GFFE, specify MJS PTO Playground.
Getting into the Swing of It
Talk of taking down the aging wooden playground, which is overseen by the Board of Education and is on town property, had been going on for a while before Sara got involved. Living in Milford at the time, she was visiting her parents in her childhood North Guilford neighborhood when “a neighbor I had become friendly with mentioned there was discussion about the playground, and I got nervous—‘What? Are you going to take down ‘my’ playground?’ And everyone who had a part in it will say that—‘my’ playground,” says Sara. “And I thought, ‘You can’t just take this down—I don’t know if anybody understands that.’ So I said to her, ‘I’ll be involved, even though I don’t live in Guilford.’”
About two years ago, the Prior family moved into a home across the street from her parent’s place. As a new MJS parent, Sara found “nothing had taken off” regarding the playground. She mentioned her interest at a PTO meeting and was put in touch with Doheny, who had also expressed interest in the project. They have since been joined by a core group of about five parents forming the MJS Playground committee and are also getting plenty of support from the MJS community. Three hundred people attended the committee reveal of the new playground plans last year (see the website for plan details).
In March 2016, the committee launched the MJS Playground Campaign to the wider Guilford community and Sara is confident that many in town will want to contribute.
“Everybody knows this playground. They’ll say it’s the greatest playground around,” Sara says. “I think that’s the beauty of it. There are the people that love this playground because it’s so unique. And then there are the people that had their hands on building it 28 years ago. They know that experience and want to be involved in it again.”
To tap into that nostalgia, the committee is using the familiar MJS playground “tower” logo created in 1989, together with the original motto, “Let’s Build a Playground.” Kids at MJS have learned a song by the same name, written by the school music teacher and his students back in 1989 (Sara still remembers the words—and the tune).
MJS playground committee volunteers will be out in the community at collection tables including at Guilford Walmart on Friday and Saturday, April 1 and 2. On Sunday, April 24, MJS students will help with a bottle drive (donations accepted at the table or let kids cash in your empties) at Stop & Shop in Branford from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. A public playground meeting is set for Tuesday, April 12 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Guilford Free Library. On Saturday, April 30 (rain date Sunday, May 1), the MJS Community Playground Glo Run will light up the Guilford Fair Grounds from 5 to 8 p.m., with food trucks, entertainment, and a two mile-fun run for participants (advance registration at the website).
The committee has also mapped out more fundraising events, appeals, and efforts for May and June—check http://mjsplayground.weebly.com for details. On Sunday, May 22, they’re throwing a MJS Playground Birthday Party from 2 to 4 p.m. In June, The Marketplace at Guilford Food Center will have the playground as its “Change for a Charity Cause” and will be the site of an adult paint night to benefit the playground.
Boots on the Ground
Once school ends in June, the old playground will be dismantled by the town, Sara explains.
“The Board of Education, which has been very supportive, is handling the site work and taking it down and preparing the land,” says Sara. “Then it’s on us to get the manpower to construct it. Currently, our build is set for the second week of August, about Aug. 9 to 14, and we’re going to need volunteers. We had 400 of them 28 years ago, over a rainy Mother’s Day weekend.”
Volunteer build crews will be guided by experts from community build playground company Play by Design (which also designed the original MJS playground in 1989). The six days of work will install the largest component of the brand-new playground. The current plan calls for scheduling volunteers in three shifts of four hours. Work will run from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. for six days. Lunch and dinner will be provided. Interested in volunteering? Check the website for updates about signing on, says Sara.
“Our hope is to definitely build the main, raised structure,” says Sara. “Then, there are a couple of outlying pieces, which, if the budget doesn’t permit at that time, we can wait on, because they could easily be purchased and installed later.”
The new playground will have composite decking, with pressure treated wood framing and structural plastic parts to be submerged in the ground. A non-toxic, soft landing ground cover will replace pea gravel initially filled into the site by student bucket brigades in 1989.
“There’s a lot of longevity to those new materials, and a little lower maintenance than this current playground, but it will maintain the aesthetic of this playground,” says Sara.
The new design has had plenty of input from MJS students, who drew up dream playgrounds to help the Play by Design engineer develop the plan. The kids also answered the committee’s questions about what they like and don’t like about the current playground, and voted on their favorite elements.
“The current design allows for spin, slide, hanging, swinging, bounce, climbing, walking, sitting, and imagining. This was a big interest for kids—they had to have a place for a nature store!” says Sara. “The addition of swings in the main playground area allows for universal access to swings.”
The new, inclusive playground will allow children of many abilities and needs to interact with the playscape.
“We have many elements that address lots of different sensory needs and different types of stimulation,” says Sara, a special education teacher in another school district. “There’s also a track that’s going around the playground, for somebody who doesn’t need those sensory stimulations, or needs to step away. There are also several wheelchair-accessible elements.”
A Guilford High School Class of ‘96 alumna, Sara says being entrusted to bring about another community build of the size and scale she recalls so well from her childhood is an honor for her, and a tribute to a community she knows is willing to get involved.
“On our T-shirts, we have the 1989 logo and slogan ‘Let’s Build a Playground’ on the front,” says Sara. “But on the back it says, ‘Let’s Build Pride, Confidence, Strength, Friendships, Dreams, and Memories.’ I think that kind of says it all.”
To make a donation, mail checks made out to MJS PTO (with “Playground” in the memo) to Melissa Jones School PTO, 181 Ledge Hill Road, Guilford, CT 06437.