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A Cleveland community, serious about play

When kids see swings in a nice playground, we hope they only think one thing: Let’s play!

But when we see nice play equipment, safely and publicly accessible to children—particularly in under-resourced communities—those of us at Partnership Schools see something else that makes us just as happy as a kid on a swing: a community, working—one way or another—for the kids in it. This weekend, you needed to look no further than the playground adjacent to Archbishop Lyke School in Cleveland to see the dynamics of such community in action.

Early Saturday morning, fifteen Partnership Schools volunteers descended on that playground to spend hours cleaning it up. It had not been in use for over five years. Given to the Harvard Community Service Center, an independent nonprofit doing fantastic work on a shoestring, the playground ran into challenges with the mulch needed to pass its insurance inspection, and it was padlocked awaiting a fix. A host of competing priorities and a pandemic intervened. In the meantime, weeds had free run of the playground, but not kids.

So for years, Archbishop Lyke students and their friends in the neighborhood have had to walk past a beautiful playground they couldn’t use—an apt example of how, in some neighborhoods, resource constraints can throttle the opportunities kids deserve just to be kids.

Mark Ciccarreli assesses the overgrowth before getting to work on it.

That is, until Mark Biche walked past. A supporter of the Partnership, Mark told Partnership-Cleveland’s founding director, Rich Clark, “I want to wash dishes. I want to get my hands dirty.” Mark had already spent four hours at Archbishop Lyke cleaning out a space to be used as an office when he passed the playground.

Almost immediately, Mark sprung into action, going about getting the lock removed, tackling the overgrowth on his own for an afternoon, and then recruiting volunteers to finish the job. “Mark is generous with his time and energy,” Rich explains. Although to be fair, Mark says all of it was Rich’s idea.

Mark Biche, now the unofficial Chief Playground Officer of Partnership-Cleveland, at work.

About the volunteers, Rich says, “They had fun. They got a chance to help. And they like the burgers I fixed afterward.” Mark adds that he enjoys the chance to widen his community, as he did on Saturday, and when he rolls up his sleeves to help, he does so for a simple reason: “It feels good.” And his work isn’t done; Mark has plans to resume work the weekend after Labor Day, when more volunteers will clean around the outside of the playground and ensure that the mulch issue is resolved. After that, he’ll move on to sprucing up the circle driveway of the school—with plants the community center has offered to provide.

(Back Row) Dr. Susan Lasch, Maureen Bagley; (L to R) Mark Biche, Shana, Julie Barry, Denny Dunn, Marc Ciccarelli, Matt Roggenburk, Steve Nock, Tom McIntyre, Neil Barry, Gerard Daher, Mark McNamara. Not pictured: Meredith Manning and rising second grader Sam Manning, who raked leaves like a pro.

While Saturday’s volunteers came mostly from neighborhoods beyond those who will benefit immediately from the playground, they do represent a special community that crosses neighborhood boundaries. Joshua Ozanne explained it well last fall, when he shared why he, his father, his brother, and their family construction company were motivated to contribute to key renovations for both Archbishop Lyke and St. Thomas Aquinas. “You can meet anyone from a Catholic school in this diocese, and that connection is there,” he explained. The shared experience across generations and neighborhoods forges a bond that Catholic communities can put to effective use, as the volunteers did this Saturday.

Joshua’s father and Rich Clark asserted a year ago that “When we have schools succeeding, we’ll have neighborhoods succeeding.” And Elaine Gohlstin, President/CEO of the Harvard Community Service Center, agrees; she says that “it was very exciting to see the work being done, and we are excited about the partnership being formed. It just goes to show what neighbors will do for the community.”

The children who rushed to use the playground even as the Partnership Schools volunteers were finishing sprucing it up would definitely agree.