A Park Grows in Richmond 

How one dedicated woman is trying to improve life in a tough city, playground by playground.

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Around the same time, she also began striving to give something back to her community. She worked with SF nonprofit JUMA Ventures to employ at-risk youth at ballpark concessions. And while working as a consultant for a UCLA research institute, she helped translate studies about children's wellbeing into information easily usable by parents.

To Maher, it is only common sense that thriving communities and neighborhoods revolve around a nucleus of activity. But driving through the Iron Triangle, entire blocks suggest that people have lost hope. Elm Playlot is one such place. A semi-circle of empty benches faces the plastic play structure, and a concrete path cuts between untended grass and a groundcover of woodchips. Five massive and beautiful sycamore trees curve over the land, but beneath them lie dog feces and hypodermic needles. The colorful but unused play structure stands in stark contrast to its surroundings, a testament to failed good intentions.

Even if Elm Playlot were clean, Maher believes kids need a place that facilitates growth and the development of life skills. She calls this notion "meaningful play." The concept is based on research that suggests how a child's brain is hard-wired early in life. Research suggests that a child's linguistic, social, cognitive, physical, and creative development — or lack thereof — is based on their early experiences. Through play, kids practice skills they will need throughout life. Waiting in line for the slide teaches social cooperation; building a fort develops cognitive skills; climbing up ropes strengthens physical acuity. When children lack a safe, stimulating place to play, they fall behind developmentally.

Middle- and upper-class families can inspire their kids with Gymboree, art classes, and lessons in the sport or activity of their choice. But in low-income communities, children are generally limited to playing at school and in their neighborhoods. And when those neighborhoods are dangerous, they're more likely to fall behind or get into trouble. In her research, Maher encountered a study that suggests living in a blighted area is the equivalent to taking away a year of school.

In the emerging world of meaningful play, play leaders supervise and guide children in inspiring and ever-changing types of play. Research suggests that guiding children in free play by giving them the elements to built forts, create sandcastles, or just play hide-and-seek increases their development. Maher believes the most essential play element for young children is a simple sandbox stocked with buckets, shovels, and water. Yet cities have largely stopped installing them because of the hassle of cleaning and maintenance.

"The play leader concept is unheard of in this country because we don't deeply value the environments we put our children in," Maher said. "So we're stuck in inertia. We bolt the same prefab jungle gym to the ground, over and over. We put costly play equipment in parks that people stop using over time because there's no challenge involved. You go up, you walk across, you slide down. This isn't unique to Richmond; every city in the country is putting up equipment that is sterile, static, and doesn't fit in with the environment. For children to be able to grow and thrive, we must carve out safe, stimulating, and soulful places for them to play. We know this, but changing the way we do business is hard to do."

Because Richmond's eight playlots are located in the city's densest urban areas, Maher concluded that they were in the direst need of help. She was immediately drawn to Elm Playlot, a corner lot easily accessible to children.

"When I started meeting with Toody, I told her that of all the parks, the one that needs her the most is Elm," said Cheryl Maier, the executive director of the nonprofit group Opportunity West, which is involved with a four-year-old initiative called Building Blocks for Kids. "Toody is a dreamer and a pit bull rolled into one. She doesn't take no for an answer, and she has made this park her full-time job. She has the time to be tenacious enough to see the right people. Can she do it? Yes, she is doing it."

During the day, Maher would visit the park and sit there. But on visit after visit she never saw kids playing. She did see people running the stop sign on 8th Street, trash building up in driveways and yards, and abandoned houses falling into further disrepair. The park's most frequent visitors were men drinking and shooting guns into the sky at night, and the bright play structure was tagged weekly.

Because the surrounding neighborhood was a microcosm of Richmond's worst neighborhoods, Maher wanted Elm Playlot to be the first park she transformed. If her idea succeeded there, in the worst of places, she knew it would succeed elsewhere. So she started talking to neighbors.

Mother of four Carmen Lee was one of them. Lee, whose house on Elm Avenue is about ten steps from the park, is fed up with the neighborhood's crime. "Too many people I know get killed here," she said in an interview. "My friend got killed in the spring; a week before that happened it was someone else. Everyone's dyin' around here. It's too easy for people here to get guns; they get 'em like you can get a candy bar. That's the thing I hate. I hate that my five-year-old baby has to grow up like this, knowing about guns and death. She knows more about guns than I ever did. It's just senseless."

A safe gathering place is what many of Lee's neighbors desire. "Hopefully the park will change things at least a little bit," Lee said of Maher's efforts. "There are a lot of people in the neighborhood I don't know, and I have neighbors I should know. There's a lot of separation around here, too much negativity. Maybe this park will be a place where we can get together."

Despite the self-enforced racial segregation visible throughout the neighborhood, Lee's comments highlight the tangible longing of the neighborhood's largely black and Hispanic residents to connect. "The boot of circumstance is around people's necks," Maher said. But below the surface, she believes, people yearn for something better.

"One thing that surprised me about Richmond is that there's a perception that it's this blank slate of awfulness, when, in fact, there's a world full of dedicated community activists working here," Maher said.

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