Captain Diana Gomes knew from the time she arrived in Anchorage what she wanted to do.
“I said, ‘First of all, I want to build a playground – but I need help,’” the Salvation Army captain recalls.
Gomes has 30 years of experience with the Salvation Army throughout the western United States. She received a transfer last summer to take on administrative duties at the Salvation Army’s McKinnell House, a shelter in Anchorage, AK, that helps homeless families with children. She arrived in July, took one look, and found a wonderful building with one very important problem.
“There was no playground equipment,” Gomes said. “It’s a beautiful facility. We have a great patio but, again, nothing where the children can really enjoy the outdoors.”
The children have tricycles and Big Wheels to ride, but ride where? The only on-site option is a small courtyard bordered by the McKinnell building, a bald rectangle of yard that is more footpath than playground.
“There’s not even grass. It’s just dirt. And when it rains it’s horrible,” Gomes said. “They want to go out, but when it’s wet they have to come in to play.”
Imagine, then, her excitement when Doug Simon, P.E., M.ASCE, of the ASCE Alaska Section–Anchorage Branch and his project team stopped by McKinnell to gather information for their plans to fulfill Gomes’ wish – a new playground.
“With the engineers adopting the project, to do the design and help us with permits and things like that, we’re very grateful,” said Gomes. “It’s absolutely awesome for them to really come alongside and provide this for our children.”
CE Corps facilitates the connection
So how did this project go from wish list to fast track so quickly?
The short answer is the Community Engineering Corps.
The longer explanation involves a newsletter editor, a meeting that paid off, some luck and lots of hard work. The McKinnell House playground project is just the kind of outreach work the Community Engineering Corps was designed to facilitate.
CE Corps started in 2014, an alliance between ASCE, the American Water Works Association, and Engineers Without Borders USA, to connect volunteer expert engineers around the country with infrastructure projects helping underserved communities.
Doug Simon, Anchorage Branch secretary and newsletter editor, became intrigued in CE Corps when going through news announcements to share with the Branch.
“I volunteered to look into it more and see what it was all about and became interested in what the scope and mission of the Community Engineering Corps is,” he said. “Particularly in Alaska, we have hundreds of communities that aren’t even serviced by roads and have significant challenges. I really saw a need here.”
Simon made a presentation about CE Corps to his ASCE Anchorage Branch, discussing the search for possible projects in Alaska. Loran Baxter, P.E., M.ASCE, a retired civil engineer familiar with the McKinnell House and its need for a playground, was in attendance and approached Simon.
“He [Baxter] met with him after the meeting, they came by the facility, and Doug thought that it would be an awesome project,” Gomes said.
For Simon, the visit to McKinnell confirmed the decision, making the playground design the first ASCE-initiated CE Corps project.
“I think it came down to the real and present need the McKinnell House had for this,” Simon said. “You see how many families come through there, and they really don’t have a place to play that is appropriate for what they need. It was a pretty clear need to identify.”
Project team came together easily
Terry Schoenthal, a landscape architect who has lived and worked in Anchorage for 30 years, explored building a playground for McKinnell years ago. Playgrounds are among his specialties, and a tour of the shelter touched his heart.
“My eyes were opened quite a bit upon the whole issue of homelessness in our community and who it affects,” said Schoenthal, PLA. “The kids in these families, they have no control over their situations.”
That made him an easy sell when Simon began putting together a project team.
“It’s a great collaboration,” Schoenthal said. “I do a lot of playground design, but there are specific issues – drainage issues and things like that – with this that call for civil engineering expertise. It’s just great timing that’s allowing us to come together.”
Simon serves as the project lead and recruited additional technical leads in Schoenthal, LaQuita Chmielowski, P.E., M.ASCE, and Anthony Robinson, P.L.S. Schoenthal and Robinson are members of EWB-USA.
“It was, honestly, very easy to get people to volunteer and put together a project team,” Simon said. “It was very rewarding in how quickly people rose to the occasion. The local chapters of each organization have been extraordinarily supportive and helpful in getting the word out.”
Gomes estimates the McKinnell House has 500 to 550 children come through its doors every year. It is the only homeless shelter in Alaska that serves the whole family – that is, the mother, father, and children.
“When they get here my goal is always for the children to feel this is home,” Gomes said.
Simon, Schoenthal, and the project team are aiming to put forth design plans this winter, secure permits, and begin construction next spring.
“That’s going to be a dream come true,” Gomes said. “Once I see that playground, it’s going to be an awesome thing.”
ASCE News will provide periodic progress reports though the project’s completion.