Giving Thought: El Jebel playground brings entire valley together
Valley Settlement doesn’t build playgrounds, but when a chance arose to replace a neighborhood playground demolished by a new traffic roundabout in El Jebel, the midvalley nonprofit jumped at the opportunity.
Executive Director Jon Fox-Rubin said it took a partnership of five public, private and nonprofit entities to marshal the resources for a new, community-designed and built play area near the El Jebel mobile home park. Both fire and rain threatened the effort, but the swings and climbing structures stand today as a tribute to the community’s resilience. Valley Settlement staff members Elaine Grossman and Sally Webster tell the story.
Aspen Community Foundation: Explain why/how the partnership that built the playground came to be.
Elaine Grossman: In April 2018, Tanya Weinberg of The Colorado Health Foundation told us she was partnering with KaBoom!, a national organization that hoped to build two playgrounds in Eagle County. Robert Hubbell of Crawford Properties was enthusiastic about the opportunity and provided the land. KaBoom! set a fundraising goal for the project and Eagle County came through with a very helpful grant. Valley Settlement raised our hand to become the nonprofit partner and those five entities, each contributing in their own way, joined to make it happen.
ACF: What happened next, leading up to the construction?
Sally Webster: KaBoom! has its own “plug-and-play” process to guide everyone through the planning and execution. It lasts about seven weeks, and it begins with a Design Day meeting — where we gathered about 20 children and their parents from the community. The kids literally drew their dream playground and designed what they would like to see — water features, a zip line, slides and lots more. From there, the adults took over and looked through playground catalogs for the right equipment. That was June 27.
That same day, we formed committees to handle the various aspects of the planning — a food committee to handle breakfast, coffee and snacks for the volunteers on Build Day, a public relations committee to write a press release, find a photographer for the event and others. For the next few weeks, the committee heads had weekly calls to keep everything on track.
Two weeks later, we were presented with three options, and we voted on the perfect design, which included a circuit course for adults to exercise while their kids play. Around that time we also learned about the site enhancements we could choose from — benches, shade structures, various things to improve the site. KaBoom! really involves the public at every step to create a space that’s made by and for the community.
In mid-August, we had two prep days with about 20 people cutting lumber, digging holes and getting the site ready for 170 volunteers. Crawford Properties and Eagle County really stepped up with a bunch of folks to do that work.
Then Aug. 18 came around and, for the first time in months, on our Build Day, we had extremely cold and rainy weather. But KaBoom! said they work in any conditions, so we pushed on. I had my doubts, but people just kept coming and ,eventually, we had 170 volunteers who wrapped it all up by about 3:30 p.m. Volunteers came from Aspen, Rifle, all up and down the valley. It was incredible.
ACF: Did the Lake Christine Fire complicate the project?
SW: The fire hit less than a week after our Design Day. For a couple of weeks, the playground planning suddenly became an extremely low priority for a lot of players. Crawford Properties staff members and a number of our staff members were also evacuated. Eagle County was obviously in emergency mode.
Of course, everybody knew the playground project was looming. Because of the fire and the delay, it became a scramble in the last couple of weeks to assemble all the people and parts we needed. I was concerned for a while but, in a way, this was kind of a perfect project to harness all the good will and community spirit that came out of the fire.
ACF: What lessons did you learn?
SW: I moved to the valley last fall from Denver, and one of the reasons was to find a place that really felt like a community. This project showed me that I made the right decision. The people here are resilient and generous and we have these separate towns, but there’s an overarching sense that we’re all one valley.
About two hours into the Build Day, I took a breath and looked around at all those people who had shown up despite the cold and the pouring rain, and I felt so fulfilled and whole. I’ve never been part of anything like this before.
Tamara Tormohlen is the executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.