At dawn yesterday, the lot behind the former New Revelation Missionary Baptist Church was mostly empty, save for dust, rocks and scrubby grass. Although the Pleasant Grove church still looks normal from the street, it too has been empty since going into foreclosure earlier this year. By April, the sanctuary, the classrooms, and the former day-care were all covered in black mold and graffiti.
But later that morning, not long after the sun rose, some 150 volunteers began to descend on the lot. The goal: to turn a pile of lumber, mulch, and some mysterious-looking pieces of bright plastic into a playground.
In this neighborhood, most kids play in the street; the closest playground is about a mile and a half away across six lanes of traffic. Over the next 10 hours or so, the playground took shape, as a revolving cast of DJs spun records and somebody dressed as the Kool-Aid Man crab-walked gingerly around the site, high-fiving children.
"We're trying to create some positive energy in this community," said Terrance Perkins around noon. He looked sweaty and exhausted but upbeat. After buying the former church building in April, he's trying to bring it back to life: as a church, where he'll be pastor, and as a community center, with the playground as the first step.
Perkins was a congregant at New Revelation before it shuttered. He's also runs a foster care agency called Passage of Youth, and was a foster parent himself. He estimates that over the last decade, he's fostered 72 children, mostly boys. During that time, Passage of Youth has also been involved in a lunch program for Pleasant Grove children, serving around 118,000 meals each summer.
But the new church, which will be called Abundant Grace, is his most ambitious step yet. In the next few months, the fledgling congregation will also add a food pantry, an Internet cafe, and a day-care. They'll also be offering ESL classes. The surrounding neighborhood is mostly Latino.
"There's not a lot of positive energy being put into Pleasant Grove by the city or by our elected officials," says Laurice Jackson, who's also with Passage of Youth. They've found, she said, that when they want something, they have make it happen themselves.
After buying the property in April, Perkins remembered an email he'd gotten from another pastor about an organization called KaBOOM! . Their mission is to "save play for America's children," and they say they want a playground in walking distance of every child. They do that by partnering with private companies; after Perkins applied for a grant from KaBOOM!, Kool-Aid pledged $75,000 to his project. Perkins paid $8,500 to ship the playground pieces, which he covered with donations.
Other donors yesterday included North Texas Food Bank, the Balch Springs Home Depot, Chic-Fil-A in Mesquite, and Taco Bueno. Then there were the volunteers, who came from all over Dallas: there were Passage of Youth members, artists and DJs from Dallas's hip-hop community, students from Samuell High School and Eastfield College, Eddie Deen Catering, some Occupy Dallas-ites, a contingent from Dallas Communities Organizing for Change, and a group called Super Love Heroes. (Full disclosure: I heard about this event from one of the organizers with DCOC, Stephen Benavides, who I am dating.)
For hours, the volunteers shoveled mulch as the day grew hotter, piling it onto blue tarps and carrying it over to the playground. Other volunteers put together the playground pieces, hammered benches into shape from the lumber, and painted a bright mural onto the back fence. Three men struggled to lift an enormous red slide, as the Kool-Aid guy stood next to them, busting some dance moves. The littlest volunteers were tasked with making paintings to hang along another fence.
"I made five paintings," announced a 7-year-old girl named Nohely. She'd wisely taken a seat in a shady doorway, where she was busily drawing and keeping an eye on her two little brothers. Her parents showed up this morning to help build the playground, with Nohely acting as their translator.
Noehly briskly confirmed that yes, she would play on the playground when it was finished, and yes, she was excited. She quickly changed the subject. "This is a dragonfly," She explained, gesturing back at her drawing. "Look, there's one over there." She was right. "They fly around in the summertime. Do you know what dehydrated is? It's when you don't have enough water. I had some juice." She paused, awestruck, as the Kool-Aid guy reappeared from a bathroom break and stopped to give her five.
As the sun went down, a lone volunteer was adding the final touches to the mural on the back fence, putting wings on a brilliant pink butterfly. The playground, wrapped in caution tape for the 72 hours it needs to set, stood finished behind him. A sign in front of it read, simply, "Welcome to your play space."