Volunteers build Hastings playground in a day

HASTINGS — Lake Hastings Park was abuzz Friday with adults in bright red T-shirts focused on a playground. They spread mulch, filled holes with concrete, bolted bright plastic tubes together and fixed a twisted slide to steel beams. Over 175 volunteers were on hand to help with the build, serve on the safety committee, provide lunch and play with children. The build started at 8:30 a.m. Friday and wrapped up around 2:30 p.m. with a dedication ceremony and ribbon cutting. The playground is at 900 S. Shore Drive, near the boat ramp.

Randal Kottwitz, Kool-Aid Days executive director, said the equipment was purchased by Kool-Aid, which has partnered with KaBOOM, a national non-profit organization that provides community-built play areas.

Kottwitz said he was contacted a year ago by Kool-Aid officials who wanted to build a playground in Hastings, since the city is the birthplace of the beverage. In January they confirmed the build and the city determined where the playground was needed.

In early June, organizers had a “design day” and talked with children and their parents about what type of equipment they wanted on the playground. Their ideas were put into three designs, which were voted on during the Fourth of July celebrations in Hastings.

“By a landslide, this design won,” Kottwitz said. “It’s called Hide ‘n Seek.” For the last eight weeks, Kottwitz and others have been organizing everything for the one-day build from food and safety to tools and volunteer recruitment. Bridget MacConnell, Kraft senior manager for corporate affairs, was also delighted by the turnout. Kraft owns Kool-Aid.  “It’s really impressive — the strong sense of community they have here,” she said. MacConnell is from Tarrytown, N.Y., where Kool-Aid is managed. This is her first trip to Hastings.

Kool-Aid’s partnership with KaBOOM began three summers ago and Hastings’ playground is the 28th to be built. The partnership was born out of Kool-Aid’s desire to bring affordable play to children, she said. MacConnell said the most difficult thing about the build will be keeping children off the playground for the next two to three days to allow the cement to cure. It will be ready for Kool-Aid Days, which is scheduled for Aug. 13-15. Although kids were involved in the design of the playground, they couldn’t assist with the build for liability reasons; however, some of the children on-site Friday did create tiles to be included in the playground, she said. Kara Hoffman, project manager with KaBOOM, said the playground pieces were constructed by Playworld in Pennsylvania. The equipment is innovative, fun, bright and environmentally friendly, she said.

Although the majority of the work Friday was done by volunteers, a handful of certified playground safety inspectors from Fry & Associates Inc. out of Kansas City were also on hand to make sure everything was being built according to code, she said. The design chosen for Hastings includes slides, monkey bars, learning panels and tubes. It is made of plastic and steel and is very durable, she said. A safety surface of 135 cubic yards of mulch was spread underneath and around the equipment. Hoffman said 79 percent of playground injuries occur when children fall to the ground off equipment.

In order to have the playground built in a day, there were a few days of prep work. MacConnell said the sorting of nuts, bolts and tools usually takes from morning to around 4 p.m. Hastings had enough volunteers that the task was completed by 11 a.m. Volunteer Kathleen Nelson of Hastings helped with the prep work and was on a mulching team Friday. She said they had the semi-truck unloaded and everything sorted in four hours.

“We’re hardworking people,” she said of Nebraskans.

Jennifer Clancy of Hastings is an elementary school counselor who decided to volunteer after receiving an e-mail about the project. Clancy was eating lunch with Nelson and Sue Rutt of Hastings, a Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer coordinator, who said they likely all volunteered because they want to help children.

Pam Bohmfalk of Hastings was also eating lunch with the ladies. She is the president of the Kool-Aid Board and said she came with her husband. “I think we’re here ‘til that pile of mulch disappears,” she said. Just before his lunch break, Steve Hohman of Hastings stood in the shade, pop bottle in hand. He took the day off from his job as Hastings Utilities to be at the build. He helped set posts and decks and fill post holes with concrete. “It’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s kinda organized chaos.” Hohman said the park will likely be a place for family outings. He has a 3 1/2-year-old and 4-month-old twins. “I figured if I’m going to bring my kids here I should come help out,” he said.