‘Right to Play’ spurs efforts for kid-friendly playground

DECATUR — Nikki Reid had already been homeless for five years when she first moved into the Southern Hills Apartments affordable living community in Decatur 27 years ago.

Reid was pregnant with her first child at the time, and she said the ability to access affordable housing helped change the trajectory of her life.

“I had nowhere to go. I was going to raise my son in a car,” Reid said. “Without them, I wouldn’t have had a place to take him home.”

Now, Reid works locally as a corporate move coordinator for Related Management, which has already invested more than $5 million in Southern Hills renovations. 3077 Southern Hills Drive.

Reid was back in Southern Hills on Wednesday as volunteers broke ground on one of Related’s latest projects: a new playground.

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According to project officials, the playground will help make recess more fun and fairer for low-income children.

“Our mission is to end inequality in play spaces,” said Kayla Harris-Fontaine, senior community engagement manager for the nonprofit. Kaboom!. “It is the reality that playgrounds are not available to all children across the country.”

For children in the Southern Hills community, playgrounds have long been a concern. Reid said the playground was in dire need of repairs when she lived there with her young son.

All children have “the right to play,” regardless of background, Harris-Fontaine said.

Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe; State Senator Doris Turner, D-Springfield; and State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, were also on hand at the groundbreaking to affirm their support for affordable housing in Decatur.

The new playground is more than that, Turner said. Building the playground will also help “build lives and build community,” she said.

“Every child deserves a safe place to live, grow up and a safe place to play,” Moore Wolfe said.

A combined effort between the Related Affordable Foundation, Related Midwest and Kaboom!, the playground is also unique for another reason: it was designed by the kids who will soon be playing on it.

Harris-Fontaine came to Decatur in July, when she met about 30 children from the Southern Hills community. Each of them had the chance to draw their dream playgrounds and tell the Kaboom story! team what they wanted most.

The team then created two unique designs based on kids’ suggestions and feedback, and community members then voted for their favorite design.

What did Southern Hills kids want in their playground? Climbers and swings, and, most importantly, lots of slides, Harris-Fontaine said.

The playground is built by a group of nearly 100 volunteers. Some are Related Foundation volunteers from as far away as New York and California, and some are Decatur-area volunteers from the Decatur Building Trades Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 146.

“We love this community,” said JD Miller, a union representative for IBEW 146. “We’re ready to do whatever we can to support it.”

The playground will be finished on Friday and the children will be able to play there early next week.

The playground’s impact on local children will likely be noticed outside the neighborhood, Scherer said.

“Think about the people who are going to live in these houses, who are going to have their children playing on this playground,” Scherer said. “I can’t help but think these kids are going to do a little better in school because they have a decent place to come home to at night.”

Contact Taylor Vidmar at (217) 421-6949. Follow her on Twitter: @taylorvidmar11.

Harold B. McConnell