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Tribute to Our Town

IMG_1292 (1)I love living in Cookeville. Love the small town atmosphere. The downtown places for children to play and the chance meetings with friends at the Heart of the City Playground and Dogwood Park. One morning last week I went with Daughter and her children to play, and I ran into three friends and their grandchildren. Friends with whom I enjoyed visiting and I loved seeing their grandchildren. But if weren’t for places for children to play, we wouldn’t have gotten together.

There was no time I appreciated our town more than when Son and family visited recently. What do you do with three young children, ages 1, 3, and 5, after they’ve been strapped in car seats for 2 ½ hours while riding from their other grandparents’ home? Take them to the playground. It was hot that late Sunday afternoon and many families had the same idea. Let kids play somewhere safe and fun and free.

A child swung in almost every swing. The four seats on the seesaw were filled. Children darted from a climbing tripod to the Tennessee Tech tower to the Burgess Falls climbing wall. My eight Grands, including the five who live here and are ages 2-11, roamed from one activity to another and then the two youngest rested in their parents’ laps. The others congregated on the merry-go-round. Around and around they went. Some pushing, some hanging by legs upside down, some sitting, some standing. All laughing and smiling. There was room for them and others. We adults watched and my heart swelled with pride as I remembered that about a year ago many people spent days and days and days from sunrise to past sunset, often in pouring rain, to build Heart of the City Playground.

Two days later, I convinced my Grands’ parents to get everyone ready for a family picture at 9:30 a.m. (That’s a whole long story!) As soon as the photographer put his camera down, my 11-year-old Grand said, “Okay, Gran. Remember you promised a treat after the picture?” So everyone put on play clothes, loaded in two vans, and off we went to eat ice cream. Where do you take eight kids who have licked ice cream cones with their tongues and noses and the ice cream melted and dripped down their arms and two Grands dropped their cones onto their laps? To Dogwood Park Fountain.

“Does this run all the time?” Son asked. Everyday, weather permitting, from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. “It’s free?” Yes. “We didn’t have anything like this when I was a kid.” Three decades ago.

My Grands stood under the giant waterfalls. Some with heads tilted face up, one pretending to wash her hair, one with hands reaching for the sky, another dancing. Or maybe he was swinging his arms and kicking his feet in pure joy and freedom. They all ran zigzag among the many fountains spewing from the concrete ground. They stood over fountains to shower from feet to head and they tried to stop the water flow with their hands and they karate-chopped forceful streams. Three Grands held hands to form a circle and skipped around a spewing fountain.

The toddlers wore out quickly and nestled with their mothers and me on park benches. The older Grands chased each other along the sidewalks and through the grass. I wondered if those who planned Dogwood Park knew how much fun children could have on a muggy August morning.

Cookeville. I’m ever so thankful to live here.








Thank You, Playground Leaders!

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 7.37.21 AMBy now, everyone in Cookeville knows the Heart of the City Playground officially opened this month. But my Grands and many other children have run, climbed, jumped, and swung since December. Cookeville’s 12,000 square foot playground is unique in design and is accessible for all children – those who run on two legs and those who roll a wheelchair.

As I watched and listened during the Sunday afternoon Grand Opening ceremony, I felt a huge sense of pride. And not just for the playground. I’m most proud of the mothers who led this effort. The mothers of babies and toddlers and middle school age children. The mothers had said to each other that they wished for a place to get together with their children. A convenient place where their children could play safely and they could visit with each other. A place where all children could play.

One of these mothers invited me to a playground organizational meeting at city hall almost two years ago. I was the only gray haired person there – all others were young enough to be my children and younger. The meeting was chaotic and the enthusiasm on fire. I left knowing that these young parents would build a playground no matter what and that I’d met the future of Cookeville. During the past two years, I crossed paths with a few of these leaders.

Having no fundraising experience didn’t stop Elizabeth from volunteering to be in charge of raising almost $500,000. She and her committee hosted many events, everything from a gala where guests wore black ties and tiaras to Touch-a-Truck where children climbed on tractors and fire engines. They went to businesses and wrote letters and made phone calls to secure sponsors. And Elizabeth hugged and thanked a kid who gave $10, as if that was all the money needed.

Virginia captained the Design and Special Features committee. She and her committee made sure all the special Cookeville designs were authentic. Derryberry Hall, the Depot, Burgess Falls, and more. She moved those cut out pieces from under a tent during rain to a church basement or to anywhere she could find to keep the designs dry during the week long rainy build week. Virginia was the paint lady and she ensured that every board and screw top and bird and waterfall were painted the right color.

Ashley and Kelly, with smiles and encouragement and hard work, spearheaded as general coordinators. They complemented each other with their divided tasks. They led by example and never missed a chance to give credit to others. To Laura who organized 2,000 build volunteers and Alejandra who chaired a committee to babysit for the build volunteers’ children. Hannah made sure water, snacks, and meals were provided for workers. Ashley and Kelly sent an email to invite all volunteers to the Grand Opening. The invitation began with “YOU ALL SHOULD BE SO PROUD! WE DID IT! A lot of sweat, tears (and some blood!)… but it’s finished and you had a part in leaving a LEGACY for the children of this community for years to come!”


I marvel at the energy of these young mothers. Their dedication. Their perseverance. Their determination. As I watched them work together, I realized that Cookeville is in good hands. My generation appreciates this younger generation.

Congratulations to Ashley and Kelly and all the committee captains. I hope you talk and laugh together often as you watch your children play at the Heart of the City Playground.

Playground Build Goes On

Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 9.14.01 AMBecause it rained for five straight days last week, the building of the Heart of the City Playground in Dogwood Park was slowed, but never stopped. Hundreds of volunteers did their best. Wet. Muddy. Tired. Dirty. They kept working and it wasn’t their fault, but the playground wasn’t completed by Sunday night as scheduled. So it’ll be finished this weekend: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

One man was amazed by what happened last week. Doug was the lead contractor from the playground construction company, Leathers and Associates. Sunday afternoon when I talked with him, he said, “This community did great. People hung in and persevered. Like that first afternoon when rain poured down and we started setting poles, it’s atypical to have people who stay. They didn’t leave. And others came. ”

Doug has led many playground-building projects throughout the United States and in foreign countries. I asked, “So have you encountered weather like this during other builds?”

“Yes, and I’ve been in places when it got down to six people. Not here. People stayed and more came. All week. It’s an incredible community! You should be proud. I am,” Doug said.

“And I’m really proud of the young people who are the leaders this project,” I said.

“You should be. Great young leaders.”

Virginia Kirby is one of those leaders, captain of the art committee, which is responsible for all the decorative designs to be attached to the playground equipment. Those volunteers have worked outside under tents and inside buildings, as space permitted. Like others, who worked 12-14 hour days, Virginia was exhausted, but she met a woman who kept her going.

Virginia posted her story on Facebook and allowed me to share it. “Up for the sixth day of the hardest week of my life. I’m about to put on overalls that are still damp from yesterday. My feet are throbbing. It would be so easy to go back to bed and just say that I’ve given enough of myself already. But I met a mother in the dinner line. She was muddy up to her thighs, having spent hours outside on the worksite. I felt guilty that I was clean and explained how art had to move inside so the paint would dry. She said she could only work one shift because it was hard to find a babysitter. She explained that her four-year-old son has seizures, uses a wheelchair, and had recent surgery. This playground will be the first place for him to really play. She wanted to do anything she could to help, even move mud by the shovelful from one place to another in the pouring rain. That way she could be part of giving her son a playground he can use.

“So, if you’re wondering why we are out in the very cold rain for fourteen hours each day; why we don’t just give up and say it’s not worth being that uncomfortable–that’s why. This playground means a lot to me, but it will mean everything to some families.”

Round two of playground building is Friday, October 9, 5:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. Saturday 8:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. and Sunday 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Kelly Swallows, one of the playground co-chairman, said, “We especially need strong arms and skilled laborers. And other workers, too. If you can come out, please do!”

I’m not surprised that work never stopped. I’m proud of the volunteers who worked one four-hour shift and those who worked day after day. And I’m sure workers will show up this weekend. Cookeville is an incredible community.

Grab Your Checkbook

thumbs_panaramic-hope-park-2“$450,000. That’s what we need. What we’ll raise! ” Ashley announced. I took a deep breath and struggled not to raise my eyebrows. I was surrounded by twenty young mothers and a few dads. Mothers with babies in arms. This was a meeting of people interested in building a new all inclusive Cookeville playground. Ashley had invited me to attend, and I was the only person there who had gray hair, except for the City of Cookeville staff member.

It was September 2014 and work had already been done. Ashley Swann and Kelly Swallows convinced the City of Cookeville to donate land and maintain the playground. And they had talked with Jeff Davidson, director of Rising Above Ministries, who had researched all-inclusive playgrounds for all age groups.

During the meeting, Kelly presented an update on playground designs from Leathers and Associates, a company that has built more than 3000 playgrounds in all fifty states. She shared pictures of playgrounds that are safe and provide physical and imaginative play. Then Kelly pointed to corners of the city council room for each committee to gather and make plans. Volunteers. Special events. Publicity. Fundraising. I dragged my chair toward the fundraising group, where Ashley thought I could provide suggestions.

“Ok, anyone got ideas how to get money?” Elizabeth Binkley, the committee chair, asked. The moms threw out ideas. Sell t-shirts. Collection canisters at schools. Golf tournaments. A gala. Again, I breathed deeply. My limited fund-raising knowledge told me that to raise $450,000 there’d be a plan to secure a donation of $100,000, two $50,000, and look for donors for $20,000 and $10,000.

“So how much money do you have now? What’s promised?” I asked.

“About $33,000. Money raised for a playground years ago,” Elizabeth said. Money raised by a Kids Kingdom committee and given to the City of Cookeville to be used solely for a downtown community playground. “We’ll raise the rest. We want everyone in Cookeville to participate and feel like this is their playground.”

Now it’s eight months later and these get-it-done mommas and their families have worked hard. They’ve called on stores, restaurants, factories, banks –most Cookeville businesses. Through an All in for Ten campaign, they collected $24,000, with some children giving ten pennies and most people giving $10. They held a Gangster Gala and raised $55,000. Fam Fest brought in $6,300. Churches have made donations: $90,000 and $25,000. The largest business or individual donation has been $24,000; the least, 10 cents. Another event, Touch the Truck, is planned for June 13.

Here’s the bottom line: $350,000 has been raised. Another $100,000 is needed by mid-July! The Heart of the City Playground will be built by volunteers, led by personnel from Leathers and Associates, at Dogwood Park September 29- October 4. It will be a 12,000 square foot fully accessible, all-inclusive enclosed playground where you will take your children and grandchildren. If another $100,000 is not raised, some play equipment will not be included.

It’s time for all of us – parents and grandparents – to grab our checkbooks! Contributions are tax-deductible and can be made at www.HeartOfTheCityTN.com or mail a check, made out to Cookeville Community Playground, to Cookeville Playground, 370 S. Lowe Ave, A-391, Cookeville, TN 38501. On the website or on Facebook (Heart of the City Playground), pick out something, such as a Pirate Ship or fence pickets, that you can fully fund.

I can’t wait until October to take my Grands to the playground! A playground that will be built because a group of young mothers raised $450,000 – their way. I salute these women and I’m writing a check. Let’s all jump on this bandwagon!

A School Playground

DSC01528 Her arms are like airplane wings as she walks across a log that washed to shore with the tide.  Her two friends follow her.  One small step at a time.  At the end of the log, the girls reverse order and wave their arms as an airplane caught in a windstorm.  Two boys, about their same age of 8, stand close by.  Heads together, talking.  The boys run toward the girls.  A boy pushes a girl, just enough that she loses her balance and jumps onto the sand, but not enough that she falls into the water on the other side of the log.

The game begins.   Girls chase boys.  The five children run in circles.  Laughing.  Squealing.  They run around and around until a girl grabs a boy’s arm.  The other boy stops running and laughs as the three girls hold his friend’s arms, pumping them up and down.  What now?  The girls caught him, now what?  Jump and pump and laugh until someone falls to the ground and the boy wiggles free and runs away.  Now far, just a few feet.

Run and chase.   A game that children play on school playgrounds.  No rules.  No score.  Just chase, catch, and release.  This playground is a sandy beach in Ambergris Caye, Belize, bordered by the Caribbean Sea.  There are no fences around the playground – it’s not even on the school campus.  It’s across the street from the concrete school building painted sky blueIt’s between the San Pedro Visitors’ Center and the restaurant where I’m eating lunch on the porch.

The children are students of the primary government school, grades 1-6.  The school day is 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., with a break between 11:30 and 1:00 for lunch and free time.  Children who live close walk home for lunch.  Some eat at a restaurant or buy food from a street vendor.  Some bring their lunch and eat outside.  And some, like the ones I watch, walk across the street to the beach to meet their parents, and younger siblings, at one of the five picnic tables. After the students eat, they play.

They wear school uniforms.  Navy blue long pants and white button front, short sleeve shirts with collars for the boys.  White blouses with peter pan collars under navy blue A-line jumpers for the girls.  Both boys and girls wear black slip-on shoes.  The boys wear dark socks; the girls, white anklets.

Children run along the hard packed sand on the beach and on the wooden plank piers, to the end and back.  The boys climb palm trees.  Parents, sitting in the shade at the picnic tables, call out and the children stop climbing so high and running so fast.  The older girls gather in small groups and talk.  Young children, using their hands, dig and draw pictures in the sand.  Two girls sit at a picnic table and write in a spiral notebook.  And many students, like the three girls I watched closely, walk nature-made balance beams, logs washed ashore.

As I walk down the steps from the restaurant onto the sand, children run along the water’s edge.  They laugh and squeal.  Boys chasing girls.  The girls stop, turn, and grab one boy’s arms and legs.  Four girls swing him like a hammock just inches above the sand and one step from the sea.