The sun beats down as children from Sweetbriar Child Development Center file outside to the playground. The students, ranging in age from 18 months to five-years-old, scurry to the fence line instead of onto the playscape. Fighting for refuge from the sun’s rays, those who do not fit in the sliver of shade, provided by large oak tree branches that sag over the black iron fence, huddle under the play structure. This routine has been on repeat twice a day for more than two summers.
“We don’t want to go outside, it’s too hot,” is their rally cry. It’s something we can all relate to in the Texas summer heat.
According to an Austin American Statesman article, July in Austin was a scorcher. With 17 triple-digit days on record, the average temperature for the month of July came in just shy of 100 at 99 degrees. The last two weeks have been particularly brutal, with all 14 days in the triple digits.
“One afternoon we came to pick up our son,” Joshua Mauk, Sweetbriar parent shared “and he was huddled under the play structure because it was really hot and that was the only shade available.”
Something had to change but parents, teachers and even the Center Director alike did not know where to begin.
The Background and Beginning
Sweetbriar Child Development Center is located in the 78744 neighborhood that Go Austin Vamos Austin (GAVA), a resident-led coalition focused on community health and well-being, through their partnership with United Way for Greater Austin and other community organizations serves. The childcare center is connected to Woodway Village, a subsidized housing apartment complex, and offers childcare subsidy.
Meet Christina Sanchez, Director of Sweetbriar Child Development Center and toddler teacher. In November, Christina will have been with Sweetbriar Child Development Center for seven years. Christina transitioned from parent volunteer to office aid to kitchen staff and finally landing in the infant room as the lead teacher of six toddlers.
As a parent (her youngest attends Sweetbriar), volunteer, teacher and Center Director, Christina is extremely invested in the success and well-being of her students and the Center as a whole.
“The actual hands-on work for the playground shade project did not occur until United Way and GAVA became involved,” Christina said.
Laura Olson, Success By 6 Program Coordinator, laid the groundwork and coached a resident through the grant writing process which secured the initial $7,000, from the Webber Family Foundation, for the project in 2016, but due to staff turnover and a lack of community buy-in, the project became stalled.
The Middle and Momentum
After years of talking with various Center Directors, the Center Owner and parents, Christina and other residents came together and finally made it happen with the help of a leadership training put on by Joelynn Avendano, GAVA Early Childhood Sector Manager, and other GAVA Representatives. Sweetbriar parents and staff learned how to create an action plan which led to grant writing and, in turn, got the ball rolling to make real change happen for their children.
With the additional cost estimate coming in around $17,000, Joelynn and Christina worked closely to secure additional funds as well as a company that would be able to complete the structure in their price range. Two years after the first grant was obtained, Joelynn worked with Christina to write a grant narrative to secure the additional $2,500 in order to meet their $9,000 recommended budget.
“At first, I wanted someone else to write the grant narrative,” Christina said. “But then I thought about it and I am the one actually experiencing the need, so I sat down and wrote about what was going on. I was the one out there sweating right alongside the kids.”
Once the funds were locked down, the pair settled on Fun Abounds to execute the project. Upon hearing about all of the obstacles they had to overcome, Vice President of Sales, Mike Gihel, came up with a cost estimate that came in below their budget.
“Mike made it fit in our budget and his crew got everything done in three days,” Joelynn said. “We even had the staff vote on the color. To have a playground shade at Sweetbriar after trying hard for more than two years is amazing.”
The End and Excitement
This project almost didn’t happen. Many stakeholders, staff and parents, disheartened by the lack of progress were ready to give up and move on to a different, more attainable project. There didn’t seem to be enough time or money to make the shade structure a reality, but persistence and empowerment made it happen.
“I didn’t give up, even though everyone told me to,” Joelynn said. “This Center is open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., so these kids spend the majority of their day there. To me, that was enough to keep going, I wanted them to be able to enjoy the space they were spending their time at.”
While finally having a shaded playground is a huge success, empowering the Center Director to create change for their children is the most important outcome of this process.
“As much as we try to focus on the parents, GAVA also really wants to focus on empowering the director,” Joelynn said. “Parents come and go as their children move on to kindergarten, but the directors stay. If we want to create a sustainable and healthy environment as well as the lasting change that positively affects all students, now and in the future, we have to start at the top.”
As for Christina, with one grant and a successful project under her belt, she is ready to tackle her next project. Thanks to the leadership training and grant writing coaching she now has the knowledge, skills and confidence to make big things happen for her center.
The sun still beats down as children from Sweetbriar Child Development Center file outside to the playground. Instead of rushing to the fence line to fight for shade, you can hear the laughter and pitter-pattering of feet as they excitedly run around their new play area. Now, children from eighteen months to five years old happily chase each other and play, shielded from the hot Texas sun by a big green shade that was more than two years in the making – and they couldn’t be happier.
A Word From The Crew
“I am so happy everything worked out and the shade structure was installed. It’s a huge improvement to the area and will provide much-needed shade for the children,” Dion Botha, USA Shade & Fabric said. Dion and his company conducted the original cost estimate and connected the center with Fun Abounds, the company that ultimately did the work.
“The great part about what we do at Fun abounds is providing playground memories that are filled with fun,” Mike Giehl, VP of Sales at Fund Abounds said. “The budget [at Sweetbriar] was tight, but we could see that it was worth working on, to make sure we got it right for the kids. At the end of the day, it really is about seeing kids with the huge smiles on their faces and knowing you were a part of that. That’s the icing on the cake.”