Jon Casteel pushes his step-daughter Rayla Farley at the
El Dorado Park. Casteel helped build the park in December
and uses the park on a regular basis.
Esteban Cortez / The Collegian
While most Fresno State students were on their way back home after a long fall semester, almost 40 students had different plans: helping build new playground for kids in El Dorado Park, also known as the ‘Sin City’ neighborhood just west of campus.
“We were very lucky to have that many students involved because we knew everyone goes home,” Associated Students, Inc. community organizer and Americorps volunteer Lauren Smoot said.
Americorps is the domestic version of the Peace Corps. Volunteers sign on for a one-year commitment and promise to do 1,700 hours in that year. Last year, at the beginning of her service, Smoot helped start a Facebook page, Revitalize the Fresno State Community. It was the beginning of an ongoing effort to contribute to the community surrounding Fresno State and to help control the crimes that have long plagued the area.
In the 80s, university students mostly occupied the apartments located in the 2-by-4-block neighborhood. Today, it has become an area dominated by Section 8 housing, but is still home to several fraternities and sororities.
Smoot and other Fresno State Americorps volunteers began focusing on programs such as monthly Neighborhood Watch meetings, the founding of a satellite branch of the Bulldog Food Pantry, neighborhood cleaning days and even participation in a local property owners’ association.
Another idea to help make the community a safer place to live was to create a place for the neighborhood children to play. Boys & Girls Clubs of America had a trailer in the back parking lot of the church, but the small park surrounding it was treeless and uninviting.
Pacific Gas and Electric agreed to sponsor a playground project using the pre-fabricated materials from KaBoom!, a national nonprofit dedicated to building playgrounds all over the United States.
Once PG&E was on board, Fresno State students chimed in.
More than 250 volunteers came together to build the park on that Saturday in December, and by 5 p.m., it was finished. Three days later, when all of the tape was unwrapped from the construction, kids came and haven’t stopped coming since.
“They just started coming from every direction and by three that afternoon that playground was filled with kids,” said Vickie Healey, pastor of Wesley Methodist Church. “The whole time during vacation there were kids there all the time.”
Having a play space for children promotes a stronger community that Smoot and Pastor Healey hope will equate to a safer community, and student involvement in the community in which they live can help get things done.
“What Fresno State students did, though they weren’t one of the official sponsoring agencies, was get involved in the committees and in the construction day,” said Healy. “It was by far and away one of the most exciting things that the church and the Boys & Girls Club and the community has been involved in a long time.”
“Creating events for students to be able serve in the community directly surrounding the university helps them to become safer,” Smoot said.