ALL AGES UNITE TO BUILD PLAYGROUND - Hamilton Beach Reaps BenefitTimes Newsweekly
Week of April 12th, 2001
by Nick Valinotti
Parked jets simmered in mist on Kennedy Airport runways. The A train clattered and droned across the bridge over Jamaica Bay. Meanwhile, a Port Authority construction crew bored holes in asphalt and sandy soil for a playground.
Fifty volunteers from Howard Beach and Ozone Park participated in New York City's first Community Playground Build Day at Hamilton Beach Park last Saturday.
According to Elvira Barisano, one of the project's co-chairs, community playground builds have occurred "all over the country's for a number of years."
She worked on such a project two years ago in Chicago, and found out that New York was one of the few places where the concept hadn't been tried. When Frances Scarantino, the project's other co-chair, approached city officials with the idea of having members of the community build a playground on a deteriorating park next to Jamaica Bay, "They told me only professionals can do such a job," she said.
While some of the volunteers were, like the PA crew members, construction workers and contractors who donated their time and materials, others found the experience to be a new one.
The younger volunteers were youths who participate in programs sponsored by STARS (Striving to Achieve and Reach Success), a group Scarantino founded six years ago. In addition to performing community services such as the playground build, STARS also offers athletic programs, classes in the arts and crafts, dance and writing, career planning and counseling services. Some of the classes and workshops are run by adult volunteers; in others, STARS participants are taught by peers who were taught how to teach by Scarantino or one of the adult volunteers.
The "Playground Project," as it has become known to neighborhood residents, began on a steamy summer weekend in 1999, according to Scarantino. STARS volunteers cleaned up the beach as part of a beautification effort for the park, which is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. "Despite their enthusiasm, she related, "some of the children wondered why the clean-up of a non-functioning park was even necessary."
After years of neglect, Hamilton Beach Park, in addition to the waterfront, featured a potholed handball court, an equally rundown basketball court and a former baseball field. Scarantino and her board members, in discussing the situation, decided that "the kids shouldn't grow up in a park without a playground," according to Barisano.
So began nearly two years of enlisting the efforts of members of the community, as well as financial support. Local merchants donated food and building supplies; the Howard Beach Motor Boat Club and other organizations held dances, bingos and other fund-raisers. The pupils of P.S. 146 pooled and donated their penny harvest, and Scarantino herself was spotted carrying a canister as she walked around her neighborhood. "All those pennies do add up," she said.
Larger donations also came in, including a $5,000 check from the Port Authority. The largest donation of all, a $7,000 challenge grant, of all came from a Washington-based organization called KaBoom!, sponsored by Home Depot and designed to help community-based organizations build playground. KaBoom runs the Playground Institute, where it trains volunteers in construction and other necessary skills for setting up play equipment. Prior to working in Chicago, Barisano participated in workshops at the Institute. Before construction began, fund-raising efforts netted $40,000 for the project.
Joseph Addabbo Jr., president of the Ozone Tudor Civic Association, volunteer and STARS board member, expressed his belief that, in addition to creating a beautiful, useful park, his and his fellow volunteers' efforts have had an additional benefit. "It really brought this community together," he said. "Sustainable community development "is obtainable through broad-based community projects that unify people for positive change."
As if to illustrate his point, Addabbo turned toward a group of teenagers from the STARS Youth Center who were helping to carry pipes and bars, then toward Community Board 10 member John Fazio. The handlebar-mustachioed Fazio pointed to two trees that are growing where the house in which he was born 65 years ago once stood. Then he pointed to a house bordering the other side of the park. "That's where I moved when I got married," and where he's resided ever since. His married son and grandchildren live just down the block.
He, the youngsters, Addabbo and the other volunteers were unanimous in praising the self-effacing Scarantino. "She really can motivate people," declared Democratic District Leader Frank Galluscio. "She praises you, or she tells you how you can do something better," said a stocky boy who helped out.
"She knows what you can do, and you do your best." The young man's assessment has been echoed by others who've worked with Scarantino, who remark on the remarkable degree of trust she places in the kids.
Scarantino, whose parents emigrated to Queens from Sicily, started STARS six years ago, when her then-teenage younger brother had trouble finding things to do in his spare time. She then thought back to her own adolescent experiences several years earlier, and realized that she, too, had limited options for activities in her neighborhood. (Indeed, residents of Howard Beach and neighboring communities often express the belief that they're in a forgotten corner of "the forgotten borough.") STARS has since evolved into an organization that won a Daily Point of Light Award from the Points of Light Foundation in 1999 and has been personally commended by Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton and Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter.
To learn more about the organization, contact Scarantino c/o STARS at 8 Coleman Square, Howard Beach, NY 11414 or 845-6956.
To see an example of their work, visit the new playground-which they finished in one day-at Hamilton Beach Park. It's near the Howard Beach A train station and directions can be obtained by a telephone call to STARS.