Conner, Coen and dozens of other students at the Fort Mill Preparatory Cooperative Preschool have a new playground today.
It has slides, swings, a fort with a telescope and a climbing wall. Conner, Coen and the other boys can’t wait to play on Freddy the Firetruck – which, of course, is bright, fire-engine red and has large, yellow ladders.
They have Conner’s mother, Erin Webster of Tega Cay, to thank.
They have Coen’s grandmothers, Beth Klekamp – who came from Michigan – and Connie Sessions – who came from Aiken – to thank.
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The trio braved Friday’s cold and drizzle, which turned the playground-in-process into a mud field.
Conner and Coen, both 3, and the other 100 or so students at the preschool also have others to thank – volunteers from York County’s Shutterfly operations and Kaboom. The two organizations partner to build playgrounds.
On Friday, more than 150 people came to turn what had once been a 20-plus-year-old wooden playground set on sand into a safe, plastic-and-wood playground and outdoor classroom.
It’s been a dream of Christine Boatwright, director of the preschool, for more than 10 years. Each time she and others at the school saw an idea they liked, they put it into a folder. A few months ago that folder came out and ideas were set in motion.
“You are making the dreams of 10 years happen,” Boatwright told the volunteers before they started work.
Before even the first hole was dug, the preschool had to impress Kaboom – a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring all children have a place to play – with their application and their fundraising skills.
With the help of Fort Mill merchants and residents, the preschool held a silent auction and a children’s fashion show, which raised $10,560, said Elizabeth Palmisano, program coordinator at the preschool.
On Friday, parents, grandparents and Shutterfly volunteers assembled outside the preschool for a pre-construction pep talk. They were divided into groups – the stars, the Tinkerbells, the smiley faces and animal groups of all types – and given their instructions.
While it was cold, they got fresh motivation when a group of preschoolers – many wearing hats of newsprint – briefly joined them.
Sarata Williams, a customer service representative at Shutterfly, might have been having second thoughts about working in the cold and rain, but they disappeared “when I saw the kids’ faces.”
Williams admitted her only construction experience was making LEGO houses.
But she jumped in like a pro, immediately taking charge of Team Popsicle, making sure they had the right number of wooden pieces and assorted hardware to make a “mud kitchen.”
While she gave the orders, other volunteers from Shutterfly – the company’s vice president of manufacturing, Eric Kok of Lake Wylie, and the human relations director, Shelly Garrity – were covered in mud, pounding the ground level to install a walkway of pavers. But in reality, no one from Shutterfly had a title that day; they were all worker bees.
Meanwhile the team of ducks or chickens – the workers couldn’t agree on what their team symbol was – started assembling Freddy the Firetruck.
Zaneta Massey, a customer service representative, threaded nuts onto bolt-and-washer assemblies that held Freddy together. It was cold and she had to repeatedly remove her gloves to do the work, but the idea of Conner, Coen and others playing motivated her.
And if anyone thought of leaving, there was Levi Hamilton, a senior operations manager, who used a shovel to fill wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with mulch.
“This is Shutterfly,” he said loudly and confidently. “We work.”
They worked under two sets of watchful eyes – those of Boatwright and Teresa Crippen, the production manager for Kaboom.
Crippen, a former swimmer for the University of Florida, knows about the benefits of exercise.
“Play matters,” she said. But it’s more than just play, she added. “We want to create a space where they can get outside, help build muscle, build relationships and interact.”
Boatwright kept an eye skyward. When she awoke Friday she was worried the weather would stop construction.
But Kaboom officials told her they would soldier on, with or without volunteers, stopping only for lightning or similar severe weather conditions.
Boatwright listened to the local weather forecast, checked the Weather Channel, and each time she looked she saw rain. She got on the phone and asked friends to pray.
So – at least at the start of Friday’s work – it may have been raining all around them, but not on Old Nation Road in Fort Mill.
Looking around, at the weather and the workers, Boatwright said simply, “This is a God thing.”