DECATUR – Orlando Alexander, a sixth-grader at Durfee Magnet School and a regular at Old King's Orchard Community Center, said the playground going up there Saturday was not what he expected.
It was way better.
The 3,000-square-foot area would contain four major pieces of Playworld equipment, involving two slides, a rock wall, Summit Climber and more. Orlando said the Spinami, placed later in the day at the northeast corner, looked especially fun.
“The people building it aren't real construction workers,” he said. “I didn't think it was going to turn out this good.”
Orlando, 13, wasn't the only one feeling amazed.
Neighborhood residents watched from their porches and from almost every angle over the course of five hours Saturday as about 200 volunteers not only built the playground and adjacent 25-by-30-foot stage, but also made a several other upgrades to the rest of the community center's Peace Park along the 800 block of North Union Street.
Those improvements included planting perennials and shrubs in Peace Garden and building seven benches where parents could sit and watch their children play.
Brandon Boey walked over from his house on Edward Street holding his 10-month-old son, Dallas, and couldn't believe his eyes.
“I been living here all my life and never seen anything like this,” he said.
Saturday was the 23rd time BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois has built a playground in Illinois with logistical help from KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit dedicated to bringing balanced and active play to children growing up in poverty.
Besides covering about $90,000 of the project cost, the company also provided dozens of the volunteers hailing from the Chicago area, Quincy and Springfield.
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The veteran of the group was Maristella Sacarelos of Schaumburg, who said she has helped build at least a half-dozen playgrounds since working on her first one six months after BlueCross hired her in 2010.
“You start with nothing, and before the day is over, the equipment is up and you see all the children's faces and how excited they are,” Sacarelos said.
Local fundraising surpassed the $8,500 match needed and amounted to about $20,000. Board President Alida Graham said the extra funds let the community center build the stage from composite decking instead of treated wood and to tuck some money away for Peace Park maintenance.
“This community loves to give,” she said.
Decatur-area residents also turned out in droves to help with Saturday's project, representing Archer Daniels Midland Co., Caterpillar Inc. and others, and served as team leaders on a dozen work crews that transformed mountains of mulch into a playground bed, created a pathway into the park from Union Street and readied 10 raised garden beds for planting vegetables.
“We want to thank you so much for being here to make this incredible change in Decatur,” Graham said during an opening ceremony.
Among the volunteers was Brittany Miller, who with her boyfriend and their 14-month-old son moved into a house across from Peace Park less than a year ago.
Miller headed up the “bears,” who built one of the slides and the rock wall. “It's neat to think about my son (Zinedine Beya) playing over here,” she said.
Other team leaders included Garden Path owner Rich Starshack, who oversaw the horticultural work; Lloyd Holman of the Decatur Trades & Labor Assembly, who with his brother Dave Holman of Dalton City had the bench-making covered; and the Rev. Ed Bacon, director of the nearby God's Shelter of Love for the homeless, who led assembly work on the Spinami.
Also playing the role of good neighbor was the Rev. Stacey Brohard and the Good Samaritan Inn, which hosted all the workers, in shifts, for a hot lunch of pork and chicken barbecue sandwiches and hot dogs.
Brohard said local businesses donated most of the food.
Debbie Fitch of Decatur brought her four young children to Peace Park so they could dip a hand in paint in the color of their choice and put their handprints along the bottom of a mural to be painted along the back wall of the community center across the alley from Peace Garden.
“Looking at everything going on out here gives me chills,” Fitch said. “It's such an awesome, awesome thing.”