Months of dedication and hard work culminated in June when more than 350 community members volunteered to construct a playground in the Lake Belleview community of Clearwater.
In the Lake Belleview community, the number of neighborhood association participants and community volunteers have consistently dwindled over the years.
Beginning in January, a small group of community stakeholders recognized the need to increase community capacity and identify emerging community leaders in the Lake Belleview community. The committee sought to accomplish those objectives through the execution of an event that would bring a large number of community members together again. This event was the volunteer construction of a playground.
The committee, led by Felicia Leonard from the City of Clearwater's Parks and Recreation Department, brought together many stakeholders, including City of Clearwater staff, the Belleair Elementary School principal, representatives from local nonprofit organizations, neighborhood residents, and corporate supporters David & Goliath and Achieva Credit Union.
"This truly represented a community grassroots effort, and the project was only successful because of team members' diverse skills and dedication. This committee is certainly a model for other neighborhoods," said Clearwater Vice Mayor George Cretekos, who participated in all of the committee meetings.
With help from children attending Belleair Elementary, playground pieces were selected. An international organization, Let Them Be Kids, was recruited to help provide the playground components and to help facilitate a grassroots campaign. Let Them Be Kids builds playgrounds around the world in areas of need and supported construction of four playgrounds on one day, June 14, in Clearwater, Israel, Canada and Greece.
To honor the only Clearwater soldier killed in the war in Iraq, the committee chose to dedicate the playground to U.S. Army Spc. Arturo Huerta-Cruz, who died serving his country in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Exactly two months after his death, volunteers built the playground. Present during the construction were Spc. Huerta-Cruz's family: Pascual Cruz, Maria Huerta, Roger Cruz and Humberto Huerta Cruz.
U.S. Army Capt. Andrew Lynch joined the volunteers after a long drive from Washington, D.C., immediately after being discharged from Walter Reed Hospital. Captain Lynch was injured in the same vehicle when an improvised explosive device killed 23-year-old Spc. Huerta-Cruz.
Official dedication ceremonies officiated by Vice-Mayor Cretekos closed the day in the Lake Belleview community. Also present to recognize volunteer contributions and Spc. Huerta-Cruz were U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis, U.S. Congressman C.W. Bill Young, representatives from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as well as Clearwater City Council members.
As part of the ceremony, the Huerta-Cruz family was presented with Spc. Huerta-Cruz's posthumously awarded certificate of citizenship.
For the many who were involved in this day it was a very moving reflection of the human spirit. Citizens from all different walks of life came together to make positive change in their community. This is what the word grassroots is all about.
As you pass by Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue S and see the beautiful equipment and children playing on it without a care in the world, please remember the "village" of citizens who worked together to make this dream a reality. And also remember Spc. Huerta-Cruz, who made the ultimate sacrifice so our children will continue to have the freedom that citizens and visitors alike now enjoy.
Kevin Dunbar is director of Clearwater parks and recreation.