By Gary H.
Odyssey House, Inc., a 40 year old non-profit community service agency devoted to assisting disenfranchised individuals with substance abuse and mental health problems, serves many different populations in our residential treatment facilities and supportive housing. One of our facilities, Family Re-Entry located in the South Bronx, houses mothers and fathers in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse with their children in an apartment-type setting. The facility is located in a low socio-economic area of the Bronx, with few existing parks and playgrounds – none of which are particularly safe.
In late 2008 the Director of the facility wanted to do more for the 40-plus children living in the facility, who only had a concrete fenced-in backyard to play in. As the person in charge of grants, the Program Director reached out to me to try and locate the resources needed to build a play space for the children. Through their reputation, myself and a team of managers reached out to KaBOOM! – a national non-profit that empowers communities to build playgrounds. We worked with the wonderful people at KaBOOM! for several months until Odyssey House’s Family Re-Entry site was chosen for a community build. The KaBOOM! model is so unique, in that they provide the linkage to funding and the playground building know-how, but the community must provide the “people-power” to actually construct the play space in one day’s time.
After much planning over seven weeks, the build day came in mid-June. All of the playground equipment and supplies for the build (including materials to build ancillary projects – such as picnic tables, art easels, a mural, etc.) arrived as scheduled and the build was on track as planned. Unfortunately the build day happened to fall on the rainiest day of the month in the second rainiest June on record for New York City. However, despite the torrential rain, over 160 volunteers from Odyssey House (including both staff and clients) and the community showed up at 7:30 AM to build the play space.
Spirits were high despite the constant deluge. But then, about three hours into the build, one of the drains located directly beneath the main structure of the playground being built began to back-up. Within a few minutes time, this large manhole-sized drain was overflowing into the backyard of the facility. This created a tremendous problem, as the playground structure installers could not continue to mount the playground equipment onto a flooded surface. As people started to scramble to find a pump, it became quickly clear that this day was in serious jeopardy of ending even though it had just begun.
That’s when one of the playground installers, Mike, yelled out, “bucket brigade.” Although few volunteers on site had ever heard of one, it became clear that Mike was calling for a manual solution to this overflowing drain. Suddenly, and almost without words, a group of about 20 men and women lined-up shoulder-to-shoulder and one-by-one huge buckets of water were scooped out of the drain and handed down the line to be dumped into another drain.
Within minutes, the overflowing drain had been emptied of several feet of water and the build was able to continue. As the rain was pouring down continuously, the drain continued to back-up, and each time a group of volunteers would reform the “bucket brigade” and quickly lower the overflowing water level. It was quite a sight to see individuals from every background, from senior Odyssey House staff to community volunteers to Odyssey House clients, working side-by-side and hand-in-hand in the worst rain imaginable in order to construct the playground.
Needless to say, the volunteers endured the never-ending rain for another 5 to 6 hours while the entire playground was finished. Said Joan Jackson, program director of Family Re-Entry, “This just shows you what can be accomplished when people come together for a worthwhile cause. It may have rained all day, but there was sunshine in our hearts.