For some people, turning 50 can be traumatic. The idea of plunging into the abyss toward becoming a senior citizen scares quite a few. Many may want to spend this special day surrounded by gift-bearing loved ones complimenting them on how good they look for their age.
But Herlene Nagler chose to mark her 50 years of life with a gift not for herself but for the children of the Shaw neighborhood. She and more than 60 of her friends and their families spent the day making much-needed improvements to the John F. Kennedy Recreational Center.
Known as Kennedy playground, the center at Seventh and P streets NW long has been a safe haven for children in the community, but it has been an eyesore as well. Once a resting spot for homeless people, the desolate red brick building in the center of a fenced lot now is the nucleus of children's activities.
"I just got so tired of driving into our nation's capital knowing that people here aren't doing so well," said Nagler, of Bethesda. An event planner by profession, Nagler said she knew that the basic element to any party is getting people together.
"So why not have people together doing something meaningful?" she said.
Last spring, Nagler and her family started thinking of an alternative birthday celebration.
"The original plan was just to have a party, for her," said Yael Nagler, her daughter. "Then we both sat down and realized that this would be a much better idea."
Yael Nagler, a 21-year-old student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., was in charge of finding a children's charity that wouldn't mind playing host to a celebration and receiving a helping hand.
After several phone calls to organizations, it was the youth programs at Kennedy playground, as well as her conversation with the recreation center's director, John Borges, that let her know she had found a match.
They talked it over and visited the center, and Herlene Nagler agreed.
"I was excited and nervous," Borges said about the call he received in June. "To come and enjoy her day with her friends at a community center cleaning is truly a blessing."
And, that's not all. Herlene Nagler also had the director compile a page-long wish list of items the center needed to distribute with the invitations.
"Since I wasn't going to spend any money on a banquet hall or a band, I figured I would devote all of my energy into getting people to come," Herlene Nagler said.
Inside bright yellow envelopes, she mailed carpenter's aprons emblazoned with the words: "It's hard work to celebrate!" In the front pockets of the aprons were copies of the wish list along with the top five reasons to mark October 10th on their calendars. A few weeks later, she mailed the birthday invitations with the cleanup plans.
"I assumed it would be fun and would leave a mark in some fashion," said Jan Maxwell, a longtime family friend. "When Herlene plans something, there is usually a positive effect."
Like the time Nagler planned Amanda Feder's bat mitzvah. Instead of using the typical floral centerpieces, Nagler fashioned decorations out of basketballs and camping equipment. When the celebration was over, she sent all of the equipment to Seeds of Peace, a program in Maine that works toward fostering better relations between Arab and Israeli teenagers.
With all of the invitations mailed, the shovels, trash bags and cleaning supplies purchased and all the plans made, it now was time to celebrate.
Nagler's birthday arrived with two conditions she hadn't planned for: a light drizzle moistened the arid, bleak soil surrounding the lot; and the paint promised by the D.C. Department of Public Works to paint the bathrooms never arrived.
Yet, the light rain didn't hinder the guests from making progress. Nagler decided to purchase the paint out of her own money.
"We promised the center we would paint the bathrooms," Nagler said. The mound of sand that was provided by Gudelsky Materials in Brandywine slowly made its way underneath the empty swings. Children and adults were on hands and knees replacing the dead weeds with tulip bulbs. The folks who couldn't bend made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to give to Martha's Table, a local shelter that feeds the homeless. The red brick building became command central and a place to hide from the rain.
Late arriving guests slowly made their way in to wish Herlene a happy birthday and to place the wish-list gifts they had brought on a table stacked with community center goods. There were bags filled with glue, construction paper, baseballs. The wish list became a checklist as all the items were crossed off.
"This is typical Herlene inspiration," said Carol Feder, a longtime friend. "She totally encompasses Tikkun Olam, a Jewish proverb that means 'repairing the world.' "
Later that day, Nagler took a look outside to consider the progress being made. It was the first moment alone she'd had all day. "I think all people have this inside them, sometimes they just need a little push," Nagler said. Then she turned and walked back into command central and out of the rain.
CAPTION: Yael Nagler, left, and Debbie Rice, right, help Herlene Nagler, center, celebrate her 50th birthday by cleaning up the recreation center.
CAPTION: Taylor Colbert, 8, right, and her brother Dustin, 5, were among about 60 birthday party guests who worked at the party. Instead of gifts, they brought supplies to help spruce up the Kennedy Recreation Center.