NEW PORT RICHEY
Elaine Smith was driving back from North Carolina in a rainstorm last Friday. Her phone rang, but she didn't answer it. It was one of her employees, Helen Caravona. When Smith, the director of parks and recreation for the city of New Port Richey, listened to the message later, there was no greeting or goodbye. All Caravona said was: "We got KaBOOM!" They had been trying for two years to get the award from KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit with the goal of having a play space within walking distance for every child in America.
Every year, the program releases a list of Playful City USA communities. There is no prize money with the award, but being a Playful City opens the door to possible grant money in the future. KaBOOM! partners with big sponsors, such as Home Depot and Kool-Aid. First lady Michelle Obama recently worked with KaBOOM! and other agencies to build a playground in California. This year, 93 cities were given the award. Two other Tampa Bay cities made the list — St. Petersburg and Safety Harbor.
Effort pays off
"This is huge," Smith said Thursday in her office at the New Port Richey Recreation Center.
She and Caravona, who is a recreation supervisor, haven't had time to celebrate. Budgets are being slashed and the rec department is short-staffed. No one has just one single job there. Smith even cleans bathrooms.
"We almost gave up on KaBOOM! this year," Smith said.
They tried last year but weren't picked. The application process is demanding. Every single play space in New Port Richey needed to be measured, researched and photographed. These range from parks to public basketball courts.
"I took my granddaughter to three parks in one day," said Caravona, who did much of the work on the application, which took her more than 200 hours.
She and others involved had to get people to register on KaBOOM! to review the city's 25 play spaces. They had to profile projects they have done — such as Fit Kids, a free, eight-week health and fitness course at the rec center. Identify spending on play spaces. Design an annual action plan for play. Proclaim and celebrate an annual day for play.
"It was a challenge," said Caravona, a mother of six boys who has lived in New Port Richey for more than 30 years. "But it was good for the city. And important."
Smith is the mother of two boys.
"The city of New Port Richey is a wonderful place," she said. "And this just brings more notoriety to a place we already know is great."
Both women are devout in their passion for getting children away from video games and having them play outdoors.
"Kids have lost the art of playing," Caravona said. Children "need to know how to entertain themselves."
Charles Timony is 14 and volunteers at the rec center every day. His birthday was Thursday, and he had his party there. He said there are plenty of places to play around New Port Richey.
"If you sit at home all day and play video games, it's not really healthy," he said. "I like to get out and make new friends."
Thirteen-year-old Kyle McCoy is also at the rec center nearly every day. He goes there to play basketball.
As far as the importance of having play time: "It's real important," he said. "It keeps you out of trouble."
A lot of kids "sit around doing nothing," McCoy said. "But I choose differently."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.