It was quite a feat – and celebration

In a year marked by rising expenses and falling state funding for public schools, setting aside tens of thousands of dollars in the county budget for a new playground was out of the question. However – as is characteristic of a county famous for its charitable organizations and fundraisers – the time, talent and treasure needed to bring a playground to the kids came from the community.

“I took great pleasure in looking out today and hearing the playground silent no more,” Union First Market Bank Regional President Mike Leake said at the April 10 playground dedication ceremony – which was attended by about 500 students, parents, donors and community members. “Because what we just did as a community is we made an investment in an important aspect in anybody’s community, and that’s our children.”

After last week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, with elementary school principal Cathy Jones on scissors duty, kids enjoyed the new playground’s swing set. (With Jones in the ribbon-cutting ceremony were, from left: John McCarthy, John Lesinski, Roy Lykes, Kathy Thornhill, Cole Johnson, Roger Welch, Al Boone, Bill Fletcher, Mike Leake and RCES student council president Jack Massie.)Kelly Jo Settle
After last week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, with elementary school principal Cathy Jones on scissors duty, kids enjoyed the new playground’s swing set. (With Jones in the ribbon-cutting ceremony were, from left: John McCarthy, John Lesinski, Roy Lykes, Kathy Thornhill, Cole Johnson, Roger Welch, Al Boone, Bill Fletcher, Mike Leake and RCES student council president Jack Massie.)

The playground saga began last spring, when members of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) looked into buying a new piece of playground equipment for the elementary school. Quickly, it was determined that the 20-year-old wooden castle and pirate ship – the longtime feature pieces of playground equipment at the school – were no longer safe for children. School Superintendent Aldridge Boone was forced into a tough decision in August to close the playground to students, with the hopes of somehow purchasing replacement equipment.

But where would the money come from? Principal Cathy Jones and the newly-formed PTO Playground Committee offered all of its $8,000 in PTO funds for the purchase of new equipment, and Boone promised $10,000 from the school budget. But realistically, $18,000 wasn’t enough – and that PTO money had other intended uses, like paying for reading rewards for students, school events, and enrichment programs for students and teachers.

During the ceremony, below, the entire RCES student body waited quietly for recess to be called. Kelly Jo Settle
During the ceremony, below, the entire RCES student body waited quietly for recess to be called.

But after the closed playground (and funding dilemma) discussed at the September school board meeting was reported in the Rappahannock News on Sept. 25, local community leaders previously unaware of the situation stepped up – in a big way.

“When I read in the Rappahannock News in fall of last year that the playground was shut down,” Leake said to the crowd assembled last Tuesday, “the community had to act – because we wanted to make sure that before the end of this school year, that you [he pointed to nearly 400 children in the audience] had an opportunity to play, just like I did 40 years ago.”

Driving back from Richmond after reading the article describing a condemned playground, Leake said he made three calls to potential donors.

Leake’s first phone call was to Cole Johnson, executive director of the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation (NPCF) – charged with managing the $2 million left to the NPCF by late Rappahannock resident Richard Lykes in 2009 “for the good of Rappahannock County.” Johnson too was dismayed that the kids had no place to play, and saw the missing playground as a perfect opportunity to fulfill Lykes’ dying wish. Johnson promised an NPCF $25,000 matching grant, on Lykes’ behalf.

“And all we had to do was raise the other $25,000 to meet that goal of $50,000, to ultimately see what you see behind me now,” Leake said last Tuesday, turning to the shining playground equipment behind him. “I love a challenge, and that was a great challenge.”

Calls two and three went to Bill Fletcher and Roger Welch, and both men were enthusiastic about supporting the cause. Fletcher pledged $5,000 on behalf of his family’s Hampton Fund, and Rappahannock County Lions Club president Welch pledged $5,000, which was quickly approved by the Lions at their next meeting. And since the school division had already promised $10,000, it was Leake’s $5,000 donation on behalf of Union First Market that completed the matching grant. In a week, $40,000 emerged basically from thin air.

“I think once it was known that we had a need, and our children were here without a playground, people acted fast,” RCES principal Cathy Jones said in an interview this week, noting how quickly the necessary funding arrived. “The delay was the work behind it, picking the equipment, getting the bids, having everything in place to get the equipment in. But as far as the ability, it was there immediately. I mean once everybody knew, we were able then to move. That was huge. If we had had to spend the whole year fundraising, we might not have a playground up ’til next spring.”

School board chairman John Lesinski said during the ceremony that if you’ve had any experience with volunteer organizations, you know you have to bring one of three Ts with you: “You either bring your time, or you bring your treasure, or you bring your talent. And in this case, members of the community brought one or all three of those Ts to make it happen.”

FOR THE KIDS: Donors and community organization leaders spending time catching up before the start of last Tuesday’s playground dedication. From left: Richard Lykes’ identical twin Roy, Headwaters executive director Jane Bowling-Wilson and Beth Hilscher.Kelly Jo Settle
FOR THE KIDS: Donors and community organization leaders spending time catching up before the start of last Tuesday’s playground dedication. From left: Richard Lykes’ identical twin Roy, Headwaters executive director Jane Bowling-Wilson and Beth Hilscher.

Jones noted that several parents were very vested in the process, and that Rachel Bynum and Janet Davis co-chaired the Playground Committee, along with Patty Hottinger. The team met frequently with Jones, evaluated playground vendors (choosing to purchase equipment from All-Recreations Inc.), drew up designs and layout, and presented ideas to the school board and some of the donors.

When the order for $45,000 worth of playground equipment was to be placed, Jones and the committee realized that they’d come up about $3,500 short for the purchase of a swingset, which Jones said was the piece of equipment most requested by students. But when Headwaters executive director Jane Bowling-Wilson told longtime resident and former school board member Beth Hilscher about that, she said, Hilscher offered to pick up the bill for the swings, on behalf of the Emily Jane Hilscher Passion Award – which was inspired by Beth’s late daughter Emily, a RCPS alumn.

“Emily liked being outdoors better than indoors,” Hilscher said, recalling an ever-fearless Emily, who loved to swing, despite breaking her arm flying off a swing “playing Superman” at their Old Hollow Road home when she was just 3 years old. “Part of the Passion Award is providing a means for people to experience their passion, so it tied together in this manner. Her passion for the outdoors has provided a further opportunity for the kids at the elementary school to be outdoors.”

So with all of the donations spent on equipment, once again the community was asked to step up and provide the necessary labor to construct the playground and spread the mulch ground cover – and, of course, the community responded in full force.

More than 50 volunteers worked tirelessly at the playground “build days” Feb. 9 and 10, spreading truckloads of mulch, bolting playground pieces together and showing their support for the kids. Girl Scouts served snacks to volunteers, local restaurants provided food, and supervisors, school board members and 11 members of the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office, including Sheriff Connie Smith, pitched in. Terry Robey and school board member Paul Brown donated their time and equipment for excavation, saving thousands on heavy-equipment labor.

“The Richard S. Lykes Rappahannock County Community Fund is proud to be part of making this playground a reality, and I want to recognize today – we have a very special guest – Richard Lykes’ identical twin brother Roy Lykes,” Johnson said during the dedication ceremony, pointing to Lykes, sitting among the other donors. “Roy, I just want to thank you for helping us preserve his enduring legacy throughout Rappahannock County, and for your unbelievable generosity . . . Richard’s legacy and his love for the children of Rappahannock County lives on through [the children’s] enjoyment of this playground. And I just know that Richard and Buddy [Darden] are smiling and looking down at us at this very moment, at you all and this wonderful playground.”

After a ceremonial ribbon cutting, officially opening the playground to students for years to come, Lykes commented on the ceremony: “Knowing how devoted Richard was,” he said, tears welling up, “to children out here in the county, it was very touching to see what you’ve done here . . . There’s a quote that I think is very important, and embodies my twin brother’s life, and beyond: ‘What I saved, I lost; what I gave, I have.’ And so giving makes your life richer.”

Fran Krebser agreed, adding: “Richard just loved this county, and he loved everybody in it – and when you go around the county, you see little things of Richard everywhere. [Roy, laughing: “And he loved to take pictures.”] That was just Richard. He was Mr. Rappahannock.”

Board of Supervisors chair and Lions president Welch pointed out what he thinks is most significant about the community in which he has spent most of his life.

“Rappahannock County is a unique and special place, and the reason for that is volunteerism,” Welch said. “We have so many different clubs, we have so many different facilities, and it brings the actual community together. So this was just another project to bring the people together.”

Lesinski, during the ceremony, speaking on behalf of the school division, said: “You know what happens inside those four walls behind us is very important, but in many ways, what we learn about life starts with what’s in front of us here on this playground.”