|What smiles are made of
|By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
The mission of the Make a Smile Playground Project can be best described by its own name: to bring smiles and joy to children who have suffered or are in need. The volunteer project, created by The North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents (NAAWS), had a banner year in 2008, accomplishing a massive undertaking that went above and beyond its namesake goal.
This year, Make a Smile recruited hundreds of correctional employee volunteers from across the country to rebuild three playground parks for children in neighborhoods hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina. The project’s mission especially focused on helping children of corrections families. NAAWS, the Correctional Peace Officer Foundation, and the Association for Professional Women in Corrections combined efforts to raise more than $170,000.
“This involved people from all over the country volunteering time, money, and resources to help people they had never even met and didn’t know anything about,” says NAAWS Vice President Mel Williams, who oversaw building efforts in New Orleans. “We were corrections officers, maintenance employees, probation, parole, secretaries, and nurses. It was unforgettable.”
Suited up in their yellow “Make a Smile” t-shirts, the volunteer work crews descended upon New Orleans and Bogalusa in Louisiana, and Moss Point, Mississippi. The chosen park sites had been abandoned after the storm and were severely damaged. Grass had grown three feet tall and water displaced most of the much-needed dirt. Due to the tireless efforts of the volunteers, and support from the surrounding communities, all three parks were transformed in a week or less.
“I’ve been in this business almost 40 years and this is the single best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says NAAWS Executive Director Art Leonardo, who coordinated the project’s fundraising efforts. “I wanted to shed tears. We had people coming up to us in New Orleans who had never talked to a cop in their life and hug us.”
At the New Orleans Desire Street Park Playground, volunteers assembled playground equipment, planted flowerbeds, created a baseball field, and built a new pavilion with picnic tables from the ground up. A picnic shelter, basketball court, mulching and flower beds, and a swing set were just a few of the favorites rebuilt at Moss Point.
“The coolest thing was so many people wanted to come out and do this on their own dime and their own time,” Williams says.
Several members of the community came by to help the volunteers or to simply say “thank you.” At the New Orleans park, one building day fell on a school holiday, so several neighborhood children walked over to help.
The kids signed up, received their yellow t-shirts, and set off with wheelbarrows, shovels, or their bare hands to help. Williams recalls looking around during that special moment to find a “yellow sea of volunteer children” blanketing the park.
The volunteers found incredible generosity and gratitude from the community. In Bogalusa, a local Baptist church provided sleeping arrangements, breakfast, and dinner. Correctional staff from nearby Rayburn Correctional Center prepared and served all of the meals for the crews. At Moss Point, the fire department helped plant shrubs around the park. A local elementary school teacher delivered thank you cards made by her entire class.
“A lot of the neighborhoods don’t look much better than they did after the storm,” Williams says. “But the attitudes of the people who are living there are wonderful. They know things have been bad but they’re going to make it through together.”
Some corrections departments across the country sent even more than individual volunteers. South Carolina and New York allowed staff to take equipment and vehicles out of state to assist with the projects. The Travis County Sheriff’s Office of Texas sent its emergency management team with power tools, two portable generators, and two county trucks.
“The Make a Smile project has done so much more than simply build playgrounds,” Louisiana’s Secretary of Corrections James Le Blanc wrote in a letter to volunteers. “It has given hope to some children who have very little. Most important of all, you lived up to the promise of the project. You showed you care and, for the children affected, that’s what matters most.”
When Williams returned to New Orleans a month after its park was finished, he was delighted by what he saw.
“Families relaxing under the shelter, children playing on the playground, kids playing ball on the diamond, adults walking around on the sidewalk, couples relaxing on the benches looking at the wonderful flower garden, a pick-up football game in the field – it was overwhelming!” he exclaims.
NAAWS is especially excited that the Make a Smile fund is continuing to grow after its massive success this year, making room for future plans and projects. Most importantly, the sounds of swing sets, games of tag and basketball, and laughter and cheers have all returned to the once abandoned parks. And that is what smiles are made of.
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