By Alexandra Chalupa
Five-year-old twins Ella and Zoe climb the wooden structure, racing each other to the top and then down the long blue slide, their two-year old brother Auden eagerly trailing behind them. It’s an unseasonably warm winter day, like so many we’ve experienced this year. Mother Nature, engaged in her own race, has skipped the cold temperatures DC is accustomed to in March; instead welcoming flowers to bloom early while drawing young children to the Forest Hills Playground on Chesapeake Street.
The erratic weather may be delightful to eager playground-goers now, but that was not the case six months ago. One particularly freezing Saturday morning, late last October, it snowed, forcing the cancellation of the annual Forest Hills Halloween Party, a gathering traditionally attended by almost 100 local families.
While dozens of young children were left disappointed, equally let down were the board members of the Friends of Forest Hills Playground (FOFHP), the volunteer-run non-profit that hosts the annual party and is responsible for working with the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) in maintaining the playground.
The Halloween Party (The 2006 and 2010 parties are seen here) is our biggest fundraiser of the year,” said Danielle Knight, president of FOFHP, mother of the twins and their little brother, and resident of Ellicott Street. “Our board of volunteers, comprised of neighborhood parents, worked for several months to prepare for the party and we were sure it was going to be our best yet. We secured donations from local vendors; volunteers contributed goodies to our bake-sale; a Girl Scout troop was prepared to run arts-and-crafts and face-painting stations, and we hired family-friendly entertainment including Nolan the Magician,” Knight said. “And, of course, the children were excited about dressing up in their costumes and participating in the annual parade which was going to be led by a few neighborhood dads.”
Knight’s biggest concern about the cancellation of the party was that it left FOFHP’s bank account depleted and budget frozen. “The Halloween Party is a fundraiser that pays for itself and provides a little additional revenue that is put toward some of the our most pressing projects, including updating equipment,” Knight said.
While DPR is ultimately responsible for ensuring the playground remains a safe and enjoyable environment, its usual response when equipment is found to be in poor condition is to remove it rather than to fix or replace it. In fact, neighbors who resided in Forest Hills in the late 1990s may recall when the DC government tried to shut down the playground entirely after declaring parts of it too run-down and unsafe. FOFHP did not exist at the time.
In response to DPR’s threat, neighbors throughout Forest Hills came together, protesting the closing and raising thousands of dollars to support the development of new equipment, which was completed in 2001 and continues to be enjoyed by children today. A special engraved stone near the main entrance of the grounds honors Samuel and Susan Lehrman, who made a very generous contribution to the effort. Bricks, engraved with the names of dozens of other neighbors and families, line the lower level of the entry-way. Most of the donors at the time were parents of young children who frequented the playground; children who may now be more concerned with getting their driving permits than playing on swings. FOFHP was also formed at this time to ensure that the community continues to help the playground thrive.
Today, FOFHP and its several hundred members – parents and grandparents of children who use the park, as well as other caring neighbors, neighborhood associations, DC elected officials, and local schools like Franklin Montessori – support the playground through direct financial donations, helping with bake-sales, and volunteering at events like periodic “clean-up days” at the park. Many families also donate gently-used toys to playground. One of the unique features of the Forest Hills Playground that separates it from most others in DC is its community toy-share. FOFHP enjoys a strong working relationship with DPR, which has been very responsive in helping push projects forward, including installing a drinking fountain last year, and a great relationship with the ANC, which provided an ANC 3F grant that helped pay for a portion of the purchase of the Big Belly trash and recycling compactor last spring.
When asked how FOFHP is working to overcome the financial set-back of the cancelled fundraiser last fall, Knight said, “We continue to reach-out to the Forest Hills community and are always amazed at the kind support. In January we launched a ‘100 Families Campaign’ that is focused on getting 100 families in our neighborhood to give $10 a month through our online sustaining donor program or a one-time contribution of $100. We’re almost a quarter of the way toward that goal. We also recently received a generous $500 donation from the Forests Hills Citizens Association, as well as a Kaboom! grant for close to that amount. And, every year we rely on the generous support of Franklin Montessori, which gives a large financial gift. These combined donations will help us replenish the sandbox with mercury-free sand, and make other needed repairs to the playground. We still need to raise money for other projects, but we’re at least going to be able to take care of the most pressing priorities.”
While the financial health of FOFHP continues to slowly bloom again, young children and families will have another opportunity to show support for the park in the coming weeks while having a lot of fun. On Sunday, April 22nd, FOFHP is running a “Spring-Cleaning Day,” inviting families with young children, and neighbors, to come to the park with their rakes and brooms to help freshen it up. As it has done in the past, Franklin Montessori is lending child-size brooms and rakes for the kids to help in the effort. FOFHP board members are providing light refreshments and baked goods, and children will have another opportunity to see Nolan the Magician perform during the event. “Friends of Forest Hills Playground” t-shirts will also be sold. The event is scheduled from 10 AM to noon. Everyone is hoping Mother Nature cooperates this time, especially since it will be Earth Day and she’s the one being honored.