- Associated Press - Monday, August 14, 2017

HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. (AP) - From their home, Misti and Will Staley can hear the voices and laughter of children at the playground a block away.

On their daily walks with their German shepherd-collie mix, Clara, the couple always strolls by the park.

“I’ll walk down there once, twice, three times a day,” Misti, 35, says while seated on a white sectional in the front room of her 110-year-old house, husband Will at her left. “I just talk with the families and talk with the kids.”

Does she tell them who she is?

“Yeah,” she smiles.

The playground is called the Freeman Playground and is named for Freeman Ellis Staley, Misti and Will’s 9-month-old son, who died of pulmonary hypertension on Feb. 15, 2016.

“After Freeman passed away, the idea came up, ‘Why don’t we do a playground in his memory,’” says Misti, a native of Douglasville, Georgia. “It’s something that would bring a lot of joy to our neighborhood and would also be a great way to remember Freeman.”

At the celebration service for Freeman at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, the pastor mentioned that the Staleys were considering the playground, and donations began to come in. The couple, who have been married since 2010, had already been sharing Freeman’s story on Facebook, and followers also began to donate.

“The whole time Freeman was sick, I felt like our entire city was embracing us,” says Will, 36, who co-founded the Helena-West Helena-based nonprofit graphic design firm Thrive. “For the majority of the city to come together to make this thing was so perfect. This community loves its members.”

With an anonymous donation of $5,000, a vacant lot at the corner of Beech and Market streets in Helena-West Helena was bought, and the Staley’s goal of a playground began to grow. Their initial thoughts of spending about $50,000 were quickly eclipsed, and the project grew to $250,000.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that volunteers from Baptist fellowship group Together for Hope in Helena-West Helena spent two weeks last summer clearing the lot and building sidewalks.

“They were the ones who got the lot down to the ground level to actually start building the playground,” Together for Hope Executive Director Janee Tisby says of the more than 200 volunteers who pitched in. “And we had people come back later to build the brick fence columns.”

Businesses donated materials and others pitched in. A fence was installed with a gate that locks and unlocks itself each morning and evening.

Fundraisers were held in Helena-West Helena and also in Little Rock, Will’s hometown. The effort won $10,000 from an online competition through Kind Snacks and another $15,000 was raised online through Arkansas Gives. A grant of $80,000 was also awarded by the Helena Health Foundation, which promotes health and wellness in Phillips County.

And then there were smaller donations that meant just as much.

“We did a program at J.F. Wahl Elementary and showed them pictures (of what the playground would look like) and told them everybody can come play there,” Misti says. “They raised pennies in their classrooms. It does your heart good to see a pile of pennies and know that each child brought them in their hands and said, ‘I’m building that playground. I’m going to play there.’”

The Freeman Playground opened on a rainy April 22, three days shy of what would have been Freeman’s second birthday. Not only is it the only park in the city with working equipment, it’s also handicapped accessible.

“While we were at (Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock) with Freeman, we met so many families with children with special needs,” says Misti, who teaches art to local children. “We knew the playground would need to be all-inclusive and have ramps, Americans with Disabilities Act-approved swings and an ADA-approved merry-go-round.”

“It’s a beautiful playground,” says Bettye Hendrix, vice chairman of the Helena Health Foundation. “I think it is a great benefit to the community. It’s being used by children of all ages. It’s fantastic for the handicapped children and is a great asset for all of the children in Phillips County.”

Surrounded by a tall fence, the park sits under the shade of large trees and reflects its Delta locale with tall, metal cattail structures. Throughout the bouncy, rubbery surface that covers the playground’s floor runs a blue strip that represents the Mississippi River, upon whose banks the town sits. And among all the cool, fun stuff that beckons kids to climb and swing and slide and spin sits a pair of stationary bikes for the adult who wants to get in a little exercise as well.

“My son just turned 7 and we use the playground consistently,” Tisby says. “I think what makes it so special is that it was built specifically for our community. There aren’t many places here for kids to go. And also, the way they envisioned it, the security that was installed and the activities at the playground all make it really special.”

Oh, yes, activities. More than just a spot for kids to run and play — though there is plenty of that — the playground hosts weekly programming geared toward children and families. A back-to-school event with snacks and school supplies was held recently by the Mu Chi Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, and each Saturday at 9 a.m. children with autism are encouraged to come use the playground, when it’s a little quieter.

“We want this to be a place that brings the community together,” Misti says. “Children are playing here together that wouldn’t normally go to school together. I think that says a lot.”

Misti had never done anything like this,” Will says. “I was there when I could be useful, but she did it, and I’m so proud of her.”

“It was all because of Freeman,” Misti says, smiling.


Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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