The Park That Kids Built


If you are given the seeds of hope, anything is possible
Mary Britts, teacher at Norwood Elementary

In 1982 I came across a story in the Los Angeles Times that intrigued me. As a documentary filmmaker I was always on the lookout for a meaningful story that could effect change in people’s lives. This one was compelling. It was about a group of 5th and 6th graders who lived in an impoverished South Los Angeles neighborhood and their two green and idealistic teachers who thought they could change their world. Oddly enough, they did. Let me tell you their story.

In the black and white photograph from the Times entitled “A Class with Lots on their Minds”, five confident individuals stood smiling amidst a pile of trash in a junk strewn lot. There was Mary Britts, a first time teacher, Robert Glasser, a 21-year old student teacher from an Urban Planning Program at UCLA, and three 5th and 6th graders, Juan Cervantes, La Tanya Thompson and Jorge Urias. Below them was an idealized drawing of a park by Juan Cervantes, his vision of what these four adjacent lots near their elementary school could become. It was a dream they would realize before too long.

I immediately presented the idea to a top-notch educational film company in Los Angeles who saw the story’s promise and funded it. On short notice I was in the field shooting a challenging story about the children’s community outreach and engagement, and push for change. This was a prime example of place based service-learning.

I went down to the site to check it out. Largely a Latino community, the neighborhood was full of grand old houses, a few gems, but mostly run down where too many immigrants lived in too little space. The vacant lots were grimy, filled with abandoned cars and trash. I saw 6 and 7 year olds playing alone in corrugated iron and cardboard box constructions and hanging off tree branches sandwiched between chain link fences and shopping carts. In an apartment building across the street the smell of urine radiated from the corridors and graffiti was splashed across the exterior walls.

Abandoned cars in Estrella Park.

I meet with the two teachers and the kids at the school. Robert Glasser told me he was challenged and encouraged by his Urban Studies professor, Harvey Perloff, also the Dean of the UCLA Architecture school, to go out and change the city by getting involved in teaching at underserved neighborhood schools. After class, he signed up for Norwood Elementary in South Los Angeles. Mary Britts, the classroom teacher was an enthusiastic new teacher. The kids were 11 and 12 years old and were mostly from impoverished backgrounds. Robert told me that on a walk through the neighborhood he had discovered the lots and the deplorable conditions where the small children of the neighborhood played and how he wanted to do something about it.

Courtesy of LA Times.

I started filming soon after. Robert had arranged a visit with the class to look at the lots and discuss their bleak circumstances, asking the kids what they would like to have in the place of those dreadful lots. After much discussion of the pros and cons of what could be, they put it to a vote. It was unanimous. The kids in Ms. Britts class were on board to build a park.

Then the hard part started. I filmed a scene in the classroom when Robert reported back to the kids about his phone call with Adeline Burke, the owner of the lots. In his optimism he thought she would donate the land. NO! She wouldn’t hear of it, she wanted cold hard cash. The kids moaned and muttered and immediately felt all was lost.

The Rest of the Story

Jorge and Juan on the junk pile.

A few months ago I located Robert, after 28 years and he filled me in on some details. “I took $1000 from my savings and put it down on the lots with a 3-month option to buy. I couldn’t disappoint those kids and I wanted something to happen, it was the only way to be taken seriously.” From then on the clock was ticking and the pressure was on to raise the rest of the $59,000 to buy the lots! Since the city had turned down the idea, the kids and the teachers had to think of other ways to get attention, and brainstorming brought new solutions. La Tanya thought of using Publicity. On the board Robert wrote the word PUBLICITY and the camera zoomed in to the big chalky rectangle challenging them to get out the word. Hand made signs crisscrossed in front of the local rundown minimart and petitions were presented to passersby. I saw Octovio, a chunky kid, buttonhole a crusty old man who couldn’t read his Spanish poster. “NAAA”, he said “I don’t understand your sign” he repeated the words in pigeon Spanish and started to walk away. “I’ll translate” Octavio yelled after him. But others were friendlier, a truck driver on his lunch break, was happy to sign. They held car washes, bake sales but only a pittance was raised. It wasn’t until Robert called the newspapers that things started to move.

Click, click the camera of the Times photographer froze images of Jorge and Juan on the junk pile. A reporter took notes as she walked with La Tanya, the twelve-year-old African American girl who was tall for her age and a born leader. She gave the reporter a grand tour of the land strewn with abandoned cars, disemboweled sofas and spoke about the need for a safe place for the kids to play, run around and feel free. “You think you can really fix up these lots, the reporter challenged. “Well it’s a mess, but if we try hard we can do it,” she shot back, thinking those grownups never believe anything. The article entitled, “A Class with Lots on its Mind,” was published on March 11, 1981 and it’s where I came in and the ball started to roll!

Los Angeles Times readers went wild and sent in cash, coins, small checks and the teachers were besieged with phone calls and volunteer help. One reader was the key. We shot from street level and the camera tilted up a very tall white high rise and then the film cut to Bob Wilson, partner in Duckett-Wilson, a land development firm, seated at his desk. He spoke about how his wife had seen the article and the project appealed to him. I tracked him down recently and he told me how he came up with the plan to help the park. It was an ingenious idea — instead of the typical engraved invitations that would garner only rejections and excuses — he wrote personal introduction letters to fifty business colleagues about each student in Ms. Britt’s 5th and 6th grade class. The return R.S.V.P. letter declared, I’d very much like to find out more about your park project…I’ll be there October 27th to hear more. The return envelope did not go to Bob Wilson but right to the school addressed to each student in the class — His associates had to reply to a kid and no one wanted to disappoint a little kid! The result: 110% record attendance!

There was only one proviso in Bob Wilson’s plan, the kids had to sell the idea.

Back in the classroom they practiced for th big day. “Good afternoon, my name is Stephan Algin, your associate, may I show you to your table…” Mary Britts sat between the kids listening intensely. They were learning manners and role-playing their pitch and she made them practice until it was persuasive.

On the appointed day, We shot the kids marching down 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles in their best dresses, some with borrowed shirts, pants and shiny shoes up to the elegant wood paneled interior of the Los Angeles Athletic Club to find their businessperson and sell their idea.

Getting the Community On Board
The nervousness was palpable as names were yelled out from name tags, “Joanna!” Joanna raised her hand and was whisked away to the elegant dining room where white linen covered the tables. As the kids tentatively opened intricately folded napkins — they looked up to find a grownup staring at them. To even the score everyone was served big juicy hamburgers fastened together with toothpicks and a mound of potato chips.

“Ahem, well why do you want this park?” asked an expectant businessman in a suit. “Well, we want the park for the little kids and we’ve gone around the neighborhood to tell people about it…” said Jorge. Big silver pots of streaming hot coffee danced in front of them as the adults listened to their predicament and peppered them with questions. A large podium with a too tall microphone loomed in front of the room waiting for the kid presenters. And they rallied.

“Good afternoon, my name is Etlin Fausto, I would like to talk to you about the park we are going to build on Estrella Ave. — to do this we need your help your time and money…this will be an experience I will never forget. We want this park for little children to play in instead of playing in a dirty messy lot with fish heads and I think that not only grown-ups can do a park project like this or companies but even children like us.” Adult jaws dropped open at her poise. “Thank you.” Then timid Jorge took over, “Would you please help us and donate money for the park project, thank you.”

Mayor Tom Bradley at park celebration.

The grown ups clapped wildly, laughed and were teary eyed by the plight of the kids and were on board hook, line and sinker.

And it worked! La Tanya, Etlin and Octavio danced and swung from the metal bars out on the playground. Together they had raised over $67,000! $37,000 from the luncheon and $30,000 from a matching grant from the California Community Foundation. As usual only one catch, they had enough to buy the land but not enough to build the park. Some kids were now convinced they would never get their park.

Glasser stood in front of the room to make a dramatic announcement. He told the expectant class that he spent all night on the phone with Adeline Burke and going back and forth and that she finally came down to $40,000 enough money to buy the land AND build the park.

Celebrating Accomplishment
On a bright Sunday morning a crowd gathered amidst the refuse heaps as Father Randy Roche, a local Jesuit priest came to bless the land. As we filmed, the camera swept the diverse crowd made up of neighbors, the students, their parents, teachers, friends of friends, the business community, community organizers and many small children. It was the first time they had ever come together as one. Father Roche intoned, “ It doesn’t look like a park, but this is a park ” Stephen Algin, one of the students, read from the bible, “Let the wilderness and dry land exalt, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom…”
“For you to participate in this I will symbolically throw out the water, but I want each one of you to pick up a piece of paper or a bottle or can and throw it on the pile over here when we leave,” Father Roche implored. Pandemonium broke out as small children and grownups dove in. Gangs of kids dragged out old mattresses, rugs and hubcaps, by the end of the day a huge pile of junk stood in a large tangled pyramid at the end of the plot.

We filmed the park’s construction in time-lapse photography over a three-week period.
The fence went up fast and the concrete oozed out of the mixer double quick as the meandering path was set down. The donated sod was laid out and pounded into place by the residents and the kids on the street along with pro bono labor from the Los Angeles Contractors Association. The colorful play equipment that the children had chosen from a catalog swung into place with big cranes. The kids became Board members of the Norwood Community Foundation and grownups had to come to them for approvals and money.

Big balloons and throngs crowded the tiny park which opened two days after Ms. Britts’ class graduated — the city government who had shrugged them off initially were now there along with the mayor and the local congressman. The Media was out in force — newspapers, radio and TV. There was also a letter…
“A hearty congratulations…you accepted a challenge and have conquered what you must have thought were monumental problems. You have my heartiest congratulations, my admiration, and respect.” It was signed Ronald Reagan.

All together the kids and their teachers raised over $100,000 to build the Estrella Children’s Park. They remembered the first word Robert Glasser had written on the classroom board over a year ago: TRY. Now that word had meaning as they watched the little kids bumping down the curving slide and the neighborhood boys kicked a soccer ball across the freshly installed green grass. They knew another word now:

28 years later…
Today the park is vibrant and still the center of the small community on Estrella Ave. Bob Wilson went on to raise an additional $100,000 for maintenance and hired 15-year-old Jose Hernandez, a neighborhood kid who looked after the park for the next 20 years. Esperanza Community Housing Corporation (ECHC) came in and dramatically changed the street and neighborhood. In June 2000, they completely rehabilitated the graffiti covered apartment across the street from the park. La Estrella was a conversion of 25 severely deteriorated single apartments into 11 large family units.

In 2004 the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT), was deeded the property and with grants from S. Mark Taper Foundation and The Annenberg Foundation it allowed for further upgrades and refurbishment of the park. Estrella Park re-opened its gates to an excited community in the fall of 2006. La Tanya (Thompson) Crawford, one of the class leaders is now 40 years old. Her experience as a twelve-year-old changed her life. Talking to business people and being part of a driving force that created a badly needed park gave her the confidence and self esteem to pursue higher education. Despite her deprived background she came to see that she could do anything she set her mind to. Now she is a psychiatric social worker at LAUSD with a Masters Degree from USC, the University that stood in the shadow of the park. Steven Algin is a deputy sheriff in Florida. He uses his powers of persuasion for Community Based policing, something he learned from all the fundraising and petitioning he did as a 12-year old. Mary Britts loves teaching and continues after 32 years. Robert Glasser, the firebrand student teacher is still helping underprivileged people — he is Secretary General of CARE International in Geneva!

“The park project was a success, I learned you can do things and there is hope…the kids learned about success on a large scale and it was a wonderful feeling that I could contribute to these amazing kids.”

All the small steps to he took on Estrella Ave. Robert told me, he uses in his work today fighting poverty in over 70 countries.

Bob Wilson the optimist.

To see film clips ago here

EDITOR’s NOTE: Bob Wilson and his wife who figure so prominently in this powerful story, recently turned 90 years old. They remain young at heart and this project set them on a course for many additional good works. Bob is that so unusual person with great instinct for how to empower students.

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Joe Brooks
Community Works Journal: Digital Magazine for Educators

Founder of Community Works Institute (CWI), leader, and advocate for a community focused approach to education.