By Jim Sullivan
---- — It has stood as a hole at Kelleher Park for the past two years — a place where children once played felled by disrepair. Now four local churches are coming together to restore the playground to the Storey Avenue housing development.
“In some way, our timing wasn’t the greatest, but we just wanted to get this going,” said Jeff Bard, a parishioner of the First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist, in Newburyport. “Our original pie-in-the-sky idea was, why don’t we contact all of the religious organizations around here? And instead of having each small-roots organization trying to do something small, if we all got together, maybe we could do something bigger.”
So the First Religious Society together with Central Congregational Church, Belleville Congregational Church and Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church have formed a community-wide effort to raise the money needed for the building and ongoing maintenance to restore Kelleher Park’s playground.
The former playground at the Newburyport Housing Authority development was deemed a high-liability risk two years ago and torn down.
Enter Bard’s fellow parishioner Barbara Garnis, who joined the tenant advisory board at Kelleher Park about six months later. She saw a need for a playground at the park and went to her congregation to discuss raising some money to help out.
“Unanimously, people said that they wanted to do this,” Garnis said.
A meeting was scheduled and 40 parishioners came out to support the initiative.
But an estimated $35,000 was needed to restore the playground and keep it up to code, so Garnis and Bard knew they would have to expand their net.
Rev. Harold Babcock of the Unitarian church reached out to Rev. Christopher Ney at Central Congregational and a meeting was organized in early February to establish the community-wide fund-raising effort.
“I think this project has strengthened our larger community,” Garnis said. “When we talk about naturally building healthier communities, one of the ingredients of that movement is that segments of the community join together to improve the lives within their community. And I truly believe that this is happening with this project.”
The collaboration has raised $17,000 so far, mostly from private donors. The group has also applied for local grants. “Art for the Park,” a fundraiser featuring donated artwork for sale, will be held Friday and Saturday at First Religious Society.
“Generous, generous individuals have stepped forward since,” Garnis said. “We’ve begun to go to community groups to ask for money, there are grant (requests) out to the (area banks.) There are many facets to raise this money.”
Garnis said members of the effort know how important a playground can be for a community. She said the hope is to start construction this summer.
“When we think about a playground, certainly the goal is to make it fun for the kids,” Garnis said. “I used to take my kids to the parks at Plum Island and West Newbury. The kids here at Kelleher Park don’t have that advantage. They don’t have the transportation to be taken around to playgrounds. In psychology, there is a distinction made between free play and organized play. A playground is free play and important for the development of kids.”
Beyond construction and maintenance of the playground, the group hopes to support 130 low-income families eligible to receive academic support and recreational, mentoring and social programming offered by the Newburyport Learning and Enrichment Center at Kelleher Park.
“These are the things that you say, `Wow, this is something the kids would have that normally they wouldn’t,’” Garnis said.
If the playground drive is successful, Bard and his cohorts hope to form a permanent collaboration to tackle other needs locally.
“My dream would be, realistically, every two years to have a new major project,” Garnis said. “To come together as a collaborative of faith-based organizations and other organizations, to look at the needs of the community.”
“Art for the Park,” a fundraiser to support the playground at Kelleher Park featuring donated artwork for sale, will be held Friday from 1 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at First Religious Society, 26 Pleasant St., Newburyport. For more information, call 978-465-0602 or email email@example.com.