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Delta Air Lines volunteers build new playground for Utah preschoolers

SALT LAKE CITY — The preschoolers at James R. Russell Head Start wanted a climbing wall and some bright colors on their playground.

What they got — after 197 volunteers showed up to build it on Saturday — was a whole lot more.

"It's so much broader than what we thought it would be," said Jennifer Godfrey, CEO at Utah Community Action, which operates community preschools throughout Salt Lake and Tooele counties. "It's incredible. We are so grateful."

Delta flight attendant Loretta Martinez, of Park City, works with other volunteers from Delta Air Lines, Utah Community Action and the community in transforming an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground at James R. Russell Head Start
Delta flight attendant Loretta Martinez, of Park City, works with other volunteers from Delta Air Lines, Utah Community Action and the community in transforming an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground at James R. Russell Head Start in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 14, 2018. The new playground, which was constructed in six hours, will serve more than 200 kids per day with high-quality early childhood education. It was made possible, in part by the grant program KaBOOM!
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The massive effort was made possible by a collaboration between Utah Community Action and employees at Delta Air Lines, as well as the playground grant program, KaBOOM! based in Washington, D.C.

"We work hard to provide the things that children need to be healthy and learn," Godfrey said, adding that the playground and its surrounding enhancements would do just that for the more than 200 kids, ages 2 to 5, who attend James R. Russell, the county's largest Head Start location.

"It feels so good," said Alex Jensen, a two-time breast cancer survivor and social worker from West Jordan who signed up to help with the project weeks before a relapse. She was happy to be in good enough condition to help mix concrete at the playground site on Saturday.

"We're all community," Jensen said. "We all live in Utah. We all need to help each other."

Volunteers from Delta Air Lines, Utah Community Action and the community join KaBOOM! in transforming an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground at James R. Russell Head Start in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 14, 2018. The new playg
Volunteers from Delta Air Lines, Utah Community Action and the community join KaBOOM! in transforming an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground at James R. Russell Head Start in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 14, 2018. The new playground, which was constructed in six hours, will serve more than 200 kids per day with high-quality early childhood education.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Delta has funded and helped build 24 playgrounds in 13 cities across the country, but Saturday's build was the first in Salt Lake City, which is home to the airline's fastest-growing and fourth-largest hub. Employee volunteers from all over the country will build five more playgrounds in different states this year.

"We have a team in Salt Lake City that is so proud to live and work here," said Marc Stetler, Delta ramp manager at the Salt Lake City International Airport. Employees sign up months in advance, and there is a waiting list to participate on volunteer projects.

"They have a heart for this," he said.

Stetler said the playground project at James R. Russell Head Start, 1240 N. American Beauty Drive, is right in line with Delta's core, family-focused values, in that it helps to bring neighbors together.

Volunteers from Delta Air Lines, Utah Community Action and the community join KaBOOM! in transforming an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground at James R. Russell Head Start in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 14, 2018. The new playg
Volunteers from Delta Air Lines, Utah Community Action and the community join KaBOOM! in transforming an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground at James R. Russell Head Start in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 14, 2018. The new playground, which was constructed in six hours, will serve more than 200 kids per day with high-quality early childhood education.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Kids who attend Utah Community Action Head Start programs come from low-income homes where they might not get the opportunity to attend any preschool otherwise. Godfrey said the program provides exposure to an early learning environment that is proven necessary prior to kids going into kindergarten. The opportunity aims to break the cycle of poverty, she said, helping kids and families as a whole have greater success in school.

The James R. Russell school had a small playground, but it was old and in disrepair. KaBOOM! helped remove it and worked with students and parents at the school earlier this year to design a perfect replacement.

"It's the kids' dream playground," said Amy Larson, project manager with KaBOOM!

The nonprofit's playground grant program was started in 1991, and Saturday's became the 3,069th custom playground built since.

Volunteers from Delta Air Lines, Utah Community Action and the community join KaBOOM! in transforming an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground at James R. Russell Head Start in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 14, 2018. The new playg
Volunteers from Delta Air Lines, Utah Community Action and the community join KaBOOM! in transforming an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground at James R. Russell Head Start in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 14, 2018. The new playground, which was constructed in six hours, will serve more than 200 kids per day with high-quality early childhood education.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

"We see play as a very important thing in a child's life," Larson said. "Playgrounds are more than just a place where kids have fun. I like to say a playground is a muscle-builder, brain-expander and friend-maker."

She said Delta is a phenomenal community partner, as the major international airline provides enough funding for each site to build enhancements to the playground areas — including various games, shaded areas, and more to the playgrounds on which they work.

Tad Hutcheson, Delta's vice president of community engagement, said the company designates 1 percent of its annual revenues to "give back to the communities where we live, work and serve."

"The more we make, the more we can put back into communities," he said. "It's fantastic."

Volunteers from Delta Air Lines, Utah Community Action and the community join KaBOOM! in transforming an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground at James R. Russell Head Start in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 14, 2018. The new playg
Volunteers from Delta Air Lines, Utah Community Action and the community join KaBOOM! in transforming an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground at James R. Russell Head Start in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 14, 2018. The new playground, which was constructed in six hours, will serve more than 200 kids per day with high-quality early childhood education.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

As with all applicants for the grant, Utah Community Action had to come up with 10 percent of the cost for the new playground, but Delta reimbursed those costs at the end of the day Saturday. Hutcheson said it was the least they could do.

"We can't do everything and meet all their needs, but we can show that we support them and can help with something we feel is very important to the well-being of the children," he said.

Hutcheson said Delta employees have worked with KaBOOM! to help build playgrounds at adoption agencies, public parks, schools, shelters and other locations throughout the United States, specifically in their key hub cities.

"Many of the employees who volunteer for these projects come back and say it was the most rewarding day of their careers," he said. "They love it and it is a great opportunity to give back."