When Paula Miller decided to raise money to buy playground equipment for the public school that her children attend in upper Northwest, she didn't go to the school board, the mayor or the City Council. She turned to her neighbors.
Together they raised $13,000 in about six months and a year ago a modular wooden climber, a futuristic Jungle Gym, was erected on the playground of the Shepherd Park School, 14th Street and Kalmia Road NW.
The equipment is so popular it has even attracted its share of graffiti. The neighborhood held a sand-in last fall to erase the writings and the community newsletter has asked parents and students to help keep it clean.
"We could have applied to the school system for equipment," explained Miller, a 12-year resident of Shepherd Park, "but that means getting on the list for capital outlay. The process can take five years, and we felt the kids needed equipment now. We went ahead on our own.
"It was a lot of work, but it brought the neighborhood together in a unique way," added Miller, who also heads the school safety committee. "A lot of people who don't have children also helped us because we made it clear we would be installing picnic equipment for use by anyone at a later date."
The climber is a five-foot-tall system of platforms, suspended gangways, slides, horizontal and vertical bars that is made of yellow pine reinforced with steel rods. It comes with a thick layer of wood chips to cushion tumbles and dives.
Linda Cropp, the school board member who represents the ward that includes the Shepherd Park neighborhood, applauded her constituents. "The school system just can't afford new playground equipment for every school," Cropp said. "But it is definitely a plus when parents actively help out the local school. This frees money in the budget to be directed into other educational areas."
Such community involvement is typical of Shepherd Park an upper-class neighborhood of expensive single family homes that belong to lawyers, doctors, Howard University professors and city officials. The community is generally bounded by 16th Street, Alaska Avenue and Montgomery County.
The community's best known organization is Neighbors's Inc., a group formed to resist "block-busting" real estate tactics in the late 1950s and keep whites in the neighborhood as blacks started to buy homes.
The playground project began two years ago when Shepherd Park Principal Edith Smith told Miller that a lack of adequate equipment was contributing to an increasing number of student injuries on the asphalt playground that had only two basketball hoops and a battered swing set.
"It's a big difference with the new equipment," Smith said. "With just the old equipment all the children could do was run back and forth on the asphalt and you can imagine the injuries that caused."
Miller recalled, "Our biggest donation was $4,000 from a foreign service officer. He James Washington, a Shepherd Park resident now on an overseas assignment had received the money as an award from local people at his previous duty station and he had the money sent to us," because it had to be donated to a charitable activity.
"Then we got $2,000 anonymously, and the rest was just knuckling down with sales and individual contributions," raised by selling candy and baked goods, Miller said.
Miller and her ad hoc group of helpers found an architect, Paul Devrouax, another Shepherd Park resident, to design an overall improvement plan for the play area. They researched the best types of play equipment, investigated the costs and then drew up various plans.
She invited her neighbors to her home to show off the plans and get a consensus on which the community preferred. Then it was on to meetings with school officials who had to approve the final plans and install the equipment after it arrived to ensure that it was safe.
"I had no idea how complicated something like this was until I got involved with the architects, the school system and the construction people," Miller said. When actual construction began Miller was there every day serving coffee and doughnuts and sometimes homemade cake to the workmen.
"At the dedication we had the climber wrapped in yards of yellow ribbon donated by a florist, and the kids all signed their names," Miller said. "It gave them the feeling the climber was a gift and that community people really cared about them."
The children also sang a song written by teacher Eleanor Stewart, praising the new equipment.
"The kids love the climber and it helps to develop all the large muscle groups and because all the bolts are recessed, it's safe," said physical education teacher Ulysses Johnson, 39, as he watched a recent recess. "We've never had any serious injuries, which wasn't the case when kids used to run up and down on the asphalt."
The climbers agreed. "I like jogging around and chasing people," said Michael Hurd, 8, a third-grader dressed in Redskins jacket and hat. "Things are a lot better now we've got the new equipment."
"I usually concentrate on playing tag, but when I'm alone I make believe I'm driving," said Devika Seupal, 10, referring to the steering wheel mounted on a vertical beam.
Now the neighbors are building a physical fitness course in a corner of the playground. Jim Evans, a Shepherd Park resident and electrical engineer, has already built a balance beam, and with money left from the climber, Miller plans to a buy tire trot, vault bar, horizontal rings and a vertical ladder to complete the physical fitness course.
They recently received $1,000 from the community's Advisory Neighborhood Commission toward the purchase of the additional equipment, which will also include picnic tables and benches.