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A place to play: Dobbins Downs residents realize two-year-old dream

By Mary Schenk / The News-Gazette/CHAMPAIGN '” Mable Thomas may not have been there physically Saturday, but her community spirit and good will were surely guiding the hands of hundreds of volunteers building a neighborhood playground in northwest Champaign that will bear her name.

The 61-year-old Thomas, Champaign's neighborhood services coordinator for 18 years, died in April as plans were under way to get a park in the Dobbins Downs neighborhood in northwest Champaign. The area is outside the Champaign Park District; some of it is considered in the city while some is unincorporated and falls in the county.

More than 350 volunteers turned out on a beautiful fall Saturday to transform an empty lot on Campbell Drive into a brightly colored play area complete with swings, rock climbing walls, a slide, picnic tables, benches with built-in planters, personalized pavers and fencing. They also neatly spread what was a massive mountain of mulch over the lot.

And they did it in a mere six hours.

"I'm pretty overwhelmed,' said Leslie Kimble, president of the Dobbins Downs Community Improvement Association and a four-year resident of the neighborhood.

Kimble was one of the major players in getting the playground built by KaBOOM!, a non¬¬profit Washington, D.C.-based group that coordinates park builds between residents and sponsors, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois.

At 5½ months pregnant with her third child, she was tired but beaming minutes before the 2:30 p.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony. A neighborhood dedication is scheduled for Tuesday, the first day the children will be allowed to use the equipment because the concrete needs to set.

"I'm a visionary person. I could walk by and picture what it could look like, but you can't picture the community coming out and working together for a common goal like this,' she said. "It's unbelievable to sit here and watch people I don't know help.'


And help there was. Men and women of all ages from Lincoln's Challenge, Illini Pride, Champaign Rotary West, Blue Cross Blue Shield, University of Illinois service fraternities, and neighbors were among those who turned out. Champaign County sheriff's deputies who patrol the area even pitched in to move dirt and mulch and mix concrete.

Lt. Greg Mills and Deputy Lucas Munds were sweating buckets as they used shovels to even the ground where the picnic tables were placed.

Mills said he remembers patrolling the area when he started in 1997 and there was a "broken down' house on the lot. Having attended his share of meetings with neighbors who said they needed something positive for their children, Mills was glad to lend his muscles to the effort.

"Leslie made it happen. It's going to be nice,' Mills said.

Clifton Jackson lives a few houses from the playground on Campbell and said there were so many people working, he was able to supervise rather than shovel or rake.

"This is beautiful. My kids are all grown and gone but this will give the little kids something to do. This is really neat,' said the 20-year resident of the neighborhood as he watched the buzz around him.

Lincoln's Challenge student Dimitrie Watson said despite the hard work, he was having a lot of fun.

"I've never really built a park before. I didn't think they could do it in one day,' said the 17-year-old from Chicago, who added he liked seeing the excited faces of the neighborhood kids who watched them work.

Kierra Barnett, 20, agreed. The UI junior from Chicago was with other members of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity.

She's done other community-service work such as tutoring but was experiencing building a park in a day for the first time.

"I like doing a community project that affects children,' she said.

So did fellow UI student Olivia Ventura of Wheaton.

"I've been blessed with a lot of things and I feel that whenever I get a chance to give back or help, it's the right thing to do. And it's nice to see all the kids who will get to enjoy the playground,' Ventura said.

"When I was growing up there were lots of places to play,' said Matt Clegg, 42, of Urbana, who came with a few other Sam's Club employees to help. "I just think it's cool the kids have a place to play.'

The park is designed for children ages 2 to 12. Neighborhood children painted about 100 1-foot-square wood plaques with colorful pictures that were attached to the chain-link fence in front of the playground.

Imani Carr, 34, said the children were so excited about the art project that they ran out of plaques. Carr was equally pumped up. She and her husband have lived in Dobbins Downs for 10 years and have four children ranging in age from 6 months to 11 years.

"This is so convenient, within walking distance. I can come here with my baby and have a place to sit and watch my kids,' she said, also marveling at the number of helpers who turned out.

Carr said KaBOOM! told the Dobbins Downs people they'd need 200 volunteers to get the project done in a day but at least 350 signed waivers and Carr estimated there were probably more who showed up but didn't sign in.

The volunteers were fed lunch and supplied drinks through the day.

"It works. People are amazed every time,' said Evan Mynatt, a KaBOOM! project manager from Washington, D.C., who's been with the organization four months.

Just before the neighborhood children who made the ribbon for the ceremony tore it, Mynatt praised the volunteers for their "tremendous accomplishment.'


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