I spent a recent cold, drizzly Wednesday morning outside with my husband, digging a 3-foot hole on public parkland.
We were there to build the coolest playground we’d ever seen, a topic on which we had zero expertise. Thankfully, at least two members of our group knew what they were doing.
There was the de facto leader, The One Who Could Set Posts. There was my friend from high school and her brother. And there was a bearded ninja-on-a-clamshell-digger who turned out to be my Daisy Scout leader’s son, all grown up.
You could pan out from our motley group of skilled and unskilled, strangers and friends, and see the scene repeated dozens of times. With 80 or more of us working that first morning, I’m sure we looked like a colony of ants, industriously shoveling, filling, tamping and straightening dozens of leaning poles that would become the pillars of the playground for which we had spent a year preparing.
That was the beginning of five of the most gratifying days of my life. Five days of hard, muscle-fatiguing, callous-forming work. Five days of fellowship with people who wore smiles as they bustled about the work site. Five days of building an asset for our north-central Kansas community, Concordia. Of building community itself.
I had been part of a core committee of about 30 volunteers that prepared everything leading up to the barn-raising moment. We’d raised $182,000, well beyond our goal of $150,000.
New projects are often met with a wary eye in our town of 5,300, because here, everyone shares the cost burden, through taxes or pressure to donate. Despite that, this project saw little skepticism and a lot of excitement. If the cause involves children, individuals and businesses seem happy to support.
A New York-based company, Play by Design, helped us organize and it drew up a plan. We would build a dream playground at a fraction of the cost by using volunteers for the construction, child care and meals. We would beg people to lend us their tools for a week.
We needed at least 500 volunteers. The night before we started, a flutter in my gut told me that no one would show up. But by 8 a.m. when my husband and I arrived, the site buzzed with the rattle of construction. My gut was way off.
Throughout the week, about 900 people — 17 percent of Concordia’s population, way more than voted in the last election — picked up a paint brush, a shovel, an impact driver, a spatula. From long-retired octogenarians to eager sixth-graders, we had enough help to finish the build at least an hour before our ribbon cutting.
What we did felt like play. I worked alongside new and old friends and former high school classmates. One moment I was my next-door neighbor’s apprentice on building a deck, and pretty soon I was doing it myself. More than once I embarrassed my husband by mimicking Tim Allen’s tool-inspired grunts.
Each day I got a little smarter, learning to set posts that first day, then running a miter saw for the first time and ending the week wearing a nail apron, gloves and earplugs.
The playground went up fast, and the work was chaotic. One day I worked with a team building a handrail. The project manager showed us where to put up posts. We did. He told us to add a rail. We did. Then he breezed over and with barely a glance he told us we’d done it wrong. (Meanwhile, a shadow descended over us. Oh, hello, roof dangling from a crane! We were so busy we didn’t notice.) We shimmied a piece here, reworked a piece there.
By the end, we had assembled a puzzle with no reference. But it looked beautiful, and that roof capped a beautiful new “train station” behind us.
Build Week of the Concordia Community Park Project earned a place in my personal bests, up there with the week before my wedding, the first weeks of my children’s lives and the most epic of vacations. All kinds of people came out: therapists, welders, stay-at-home moms, bankers, school superintendents, farmers and the mayor herself.
Experienced contractors gave whole days of labor, no doubt at a slower pace as they so patiently guided lunkheads like me.
At the ribbon cutting, dozens of children flitted from the playground’s musical instruments to the combine to the tree house to the biplane and back. Their faces were precious.
The volunteers’ faces as they watched the children were priceless. This week of strangers taking vacation time to build something magical for the kids — this is why we moved here.
Being a parent is about doing what’s best for your children. But remember how “it takes a village”? Yeah, we parents can’t do what’s best alone. You get to choose your village. Pick one that will show up for your child.