School, volunteers rise above adversity Fire doesn't derail playground project at City Springs


Rain, teasing sun, more rain, and still they dug and painted, splattered with the brown of the wet earth and the same bright green with which they covered each and every school door.

The new asphalt lot, striped for baseball, basketball and hopscotch, glistened with the promise of afternoons of play for more than 300 children. City Springs Elementary School was finally getting a playground and a face lift and none of the volunteers who came to make it happen were going to let a little downpour get in the way.

For Principal Bernice Whelchel, counselor Janet Cottman, parent liaison Irona Pope and the teachers and students who joined the Serv-A-Thon volunteers at the school on Caroline Street in East Baltimore yesterday, it was an affirming day and a happy ending to what had been a very up-and-down week.

"Oh yes, yes indeed, this is wonderful and we are so excited and grateful. "I just wish whoever ," Whelchel said, her voice trailing off as she looked, once more, at the fenced area next to the school where until Wednesday night, the tot lot had stood.

The tot lot, with its swings and slide and sandbox for the pre-schoolers, had been a gift from First Apostolic Church across the street. Wednesday night, someone climbed over the locked fence, poured a flammable material around and burned it down.

When the children arrived on Thursday morning, there was nothing left but a pile of charred timbers and the bitter smell of burned wood and melted rubber in the air.

And so, even in the midst of their excitement at finally getting a big playground, the children and the teachers and Whelchel -- who cried when she saw the rubble -- mourned. And they wondered, who could do such a mean, mean thing?

"You take 20 steps forward and then something like this happens to just knock you flat," Whelchel said on Thursday when the hurt was still fresh.

By Friday, the school had rallied. Children wrote notes to Whelchel: Don't be sad, they said. The parents offered their support. Whelchel worried, would their new playground fall victim, too? And she began, once again, to look for ways to raise more money to rebuild the tot lot which, with its protective pads and safety equipment, had cost $10,000.

In spite of the loss and the anger, which still boils inside Whelchel, the growing school family pulled itself together and nTC showed a spirit that the principal had not quite seen before.

"Whoever did it is stupid and I hope they get locked up," said fifth-grader Thomas Jones. "Me and my friend Byron McCready are planting flowers to make the school look pretty -- and we'll show them."

The day's efforts marked the culmination of years of trying to find a way to build a playground for the children, who until now, have spent all day, every day, inside the building, fidgeting through the long afternoons for want of a safe place to run and play.

Last fall, during one of her many fund-raising pitches, Whelchel asked school board member and contractor Bill Struever for help. He suggested she apply to Hands on Baltimore, which solicits wish lists from schools and then tries to fill them.

This year, Hands on Baltimore paired contractors and corporate donors with more than 2,000 volunteers who fanned out across the city yesterday to plant flowers, paint and spruce up 38 schools. At Federal Hill Elementary, one of the three schools to get new playgrounds, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend climbed aboard a backhoe to move earth and endorse the effort.

At City Springs, P. Flanigan & Sons, a road construction company, donated materials and labor to pour blacktop, build a chain-link fence, paint the lot last week and buy play equipment, all of which is expected to cost about $35,000. H&S; Properties, which is developing the nearby Inner Harbor East, donated $10,000 for landscaping, paint and other items.

Volunteers came, from among other places, the Helping Up Mission, the OASIS neighborhood group, and the South East Community Organization.

"Certainly, corporate support is crucial, but if you're going to create a lasting impact, you have to have community support," said Steve Kain, a Hands on Baltimore board member and representative of the South East Community Organization.

As the elementary school has struggled to raise reading levels among its children, most of whom live in the nearby housing projects, Whelchel has found allies in a growing list of corporations and civic groups. Private, anonymous citizens have donated books. And still, the school needs more books to fill the shelves of its library.

"It's a two-way street," Whelchel says. "The more people help us, the more our children will be able to develop into good citizens who, too, can give back to the community."

To contribute to the playground, write: City Springs Elementary Playground Fund. 100 S. Caroline Street, Baltimore 21231. 410-396-9165.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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