By Michaela Marx Wheatley
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Volunteers brought the kids of Briarwood Elementary School one step closer to normalcy Saturday as a top-notch playground rose on the Emmaus Baptist Church grounds that houses the school after it was destroyed in the May 20 tornado.
“This helps them rewrite the story, or better rewrite the ending of their story,” said Briarwood Principal Shelley McMillian.
“The last day of school was horrific. It puts one more day between them and May 20,” McMillian said as she watched a group of her kids haul material toward the playground site.
The playground project has been all the kids have been talking about last week, she said. The racing slides. The zip line. The monkey bars.
“They have been fantasizing about it,” McMillian said.
Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” blasted from oversized speakers. Kids were running and tossing the football with Nike volunteers. More than 200 helpers, ranging from age 5 through retirement age, worked together on play structures, raked wood chips into place, painted the sidewalk and secured fences. It was a party atmosphere, but some serious work was accomplished Saturday morning.
The playground is the first of five to be built by KaBOOM! and Nike as part of the rebuilding effort following the May tornados. Briarwood kids will play at the new structure until they move back. Briarwood and Tower Plaza schools will also get new structures once the rebuilding efforts are wrapped up.
“I know how to build a playground, but it’s the community coming together,” said Chappy Rago, KaBOOM project manager. “They had five weeks and made it happen. I learned here what it means to be ‘Moore strong.’”
Kathy Webb, a Nike representative from the company’s Oregon headquarters, said that even though the group and some volunteers arrived three days ago to prepare the site, the majority of the work was done in just six hours.
“It was a plain field this morning. It was just flatlands. And now look at this,” she said pointing at the purple and teal playground bustling with volunteers.
“Kids need a place to play. With the disaster it took away this opportunity,” Webb said.
Parents said children being able to be part of the construction process helps empower them and aids the healing process.
“My son got to paint a pave stone that will be here forever,” said Nicole Harris, the Briarwood Parent Teacher Association president.
“My daughter has been shuffling mulch all morning,” said Kelly Hickman, the PTA president.
Parents said the opportunity to stay together as Briarwood instead of being split up into different schools as it was done after the May 1999 tornadoes has been huge for the children.
“We are so grateful that we are here and together as a school,” Harris said. “They started school together and the focus wasn’t ‘Urgh, you’re a tornado kid’ (at another school). But they are here together. They rebuild together. That helps them heal. Here they have familiar faces, familiar teachers. Things are almost normal.”
The youngest volunteers were very proud of their handy work.
“The way I look at this playground is that I want to play on this,” said a sweat-drenched Zachary Harris, now a third-grader at Briarwood. He added that it was great to be asked what they wanted on their playground. KaBOOM and Nike had asked the kids to be part of the visioning process and plans were drawn up based on their ideas and wishes.
Second-grader Hezekiah Darbon said they had been playing football and basketball during recess since school started and that was OK, but a playground will be even better.
He said he liked working like an adult.
“I hadn’t worked before with tools and grown-ups,” he said. “I can’t wait to get back to school and get on it.”
One of the adults he had worked alongside was Moore Schools Superintendent Robert Romines.
“It’s been a challenging summer,” said the superintendent who oversaw not only the regular planning stages for all Moore schools but also had to find new homes for the schools destroyed in the storm. Watching the community come together in such a manner was a highlight.
“Now we are about rebuilding. We will never forget,” he said. “But now we are looking into the future.
“Briarwood, Plaza Towers – these schools were the hearts of their neighborhoods. And a playground at a school is a huge part of that. This built is for the kids, for the community. It’s overwhelming,” Romines said.
Volunteers agreed that they would be back when the other playgrounds will be built.
Pastor Jim Shepherd of Goodrich Memorial United Methodist Church in Norman was part of the effort with a group from his congregation.
“The Moore tornado touched the heart of Goodrich in a powerful way as we witnessed the physical and emotional devastation. We jumped at the opportunity to share in this playground project because we knew that it would provide hundreds of children to opportunity to do what children do—play,” he said.
“And when they get ready to move the school back, we’ll do it all again,” Shepard added.