Rays build playground for children impacted by domestic violence
The Tampa Bay Rays picked a fine day to build a playground. If you like record-seating November heat.
Under a hot sun, in a the back of a facility closed off from public view, Raymond's visage was already visible on a jungle gym as a one-day project reached its halfway point late Friday morning.
About 150 volunteers, almost all of them Rays employees, ferried mulch, mixed concrete and assembled playground equipment in the courtyard of Community Action Stops Abuse or CASA's domestic violence center in southern Pinellas County.
It's the sixth playground built by the team since 2010. Team president Brian Auld reached out to the non-profit KaBOOM!, which finished more than 2,700 playgrounds across the country since 1996.
The Rays have also build playgrounds in Tampa and Brandenton. Friday's build was the team's third in southern Pinellas County.
Auld had partnered with KaBOOM! when he taught 4th grade at an East Palo Alto charter school in the early 2000s. When he became a Rays executive, he told the Washington, D.C.-based organization that he'd like the Rays to help build playgrounds in areas of need in Tampa Bay.
"These kids are going through a really rough time. It's nice to be able to come home from school and have this," said Auld, wiping sweat from his brow and drinking a Gatorade.
CASA interim executive director Shandra Riffey said about 50 children currently reside at the 100-bed facility. The location can't be disclosed because of security concerns.
"For many of them, this will be the first time they'll be able to be children," Riffey said.
She said one girl, about 7, hadn't spoken a word after arriving at the facility. But when she and other kids helped KaBoom! staffers design the playground a few weeks ago and met Raymond, the girl started talking for the first time since entering the shelter.
"It was a Raymond moment," Riffey said.
Yellow-shirted Rays volunteers, including manager Kevin Cash and former players Rich Thompson, Travis Phelps, Dan Wheeler, Jason Romano and Esteban Yan, had been working since 8 a.m.
Erik Neander, the team's vice president of baseball operations, took a break from mixing concrete to say the Rays want to be seen as more than just a baseball team, but community partners.
For much of the last decade, a standoff between the city and the team over the Rays desire to look around Tampa Bay for a new stadium site dominated headlines and, for many, shaped the image of the team.
"The baseball of this team is much more visible, it's played 150 times a year on television to large audiences. But what we do in the community doesn't get the same audience," he said. "But that doesn't matter. What's important is seeing the faces of kids when they see it."
The public relations aspect of the event aside, it was hard work, especially under an uncharacteristically brutal November sun. Neander, who's participated in five playground builds, said he'll take the sun over rain any day.
"I have been on mulch duty when it rained. That added a lot of weight. I'll take the heat," he said.
The Rays and KaBoom! hope to have the playground done by the time the shelter's kids get home from school. The younger children were sent to childcare for the day.
"They know something is happening, but they don't know what. They're going to be surprised," Riffey said.