In June, as the school year was nearing its end in Philadelphia, the 560 or so students at Bayard Taylor Elementary School headed out for recess, as they did every day, on the barren and ugly concrete lot adjacent to the main school building. With no equipment or amenities to speak of, the children did their best to come up games and activities to unwind from their classroom studies.
But by the middle of August, before the students had returned to Taylor from their summer break, the no-frills pavement had been transformed into a modern educational play area outfitted with the latest equipment to get children moving and thinking.
The playground sprouted suddenly outside the school over the summer after a visit to the school on June 1 from Philadelphia Phillies star pitcher Cole Hamels. With him, he brought a giant $300,000 check from his foundation, as well as a promise to provide students with a state-of-the-art sustainable playground that would stimulate creativity and learning.
Several weeks of whirlwind work followed, and Hamels, a member of the Phillies since 2006 who had just signed a $144 million contract to remain with the team through 2018, led a posse of some 150 volunteers back to Taylor in August to cut a ribbon commemorating completion of the project.
Months later, Debra Drossner, principal of Bayard Taylor, still expresses amazement at what was accomplished outside her school in a few short weeks.
"This summer was the most exciting professional ride of my life," she says.
The project provides Taylor students and others in the inner-city Hunting Park neighborhood with something they never had before: a decent playground.
"There was no playground within a 10-block area of the school," Drossner says.
The principal credits the success of the project — and the speed at which it was carried out — to Hamels' wife, Heidi Hamels. Before marrying Hamels, she gained fame in her own right when, as Heidi Strobel, she competed on the "Survivor" TV show's sixth edition, which was set in Brazil.
"Heidi is very determined and driven," Drossner says. "Things happened quickly. You can't say no to her."
For years, people had been saying no to Taylor Elementary's quest for improved recreational facilities. Over the years, other city schools received help from civic associations or other philanthropic efforts to get new or updated playgrounds, but Taylor's students had to make due with their unadorned lot.
"We had no plans for this kind of playground," says the principal. "It was just a dream, a wish list that maybe we could have something done."
The foundation did not choose Taylor Elementary out of the blue. Its relationship with the school began in 2009 with a modest grant of $3,000 so that school administrators could buy a working walkie-talkie system that would enable staff members in the main building to communicate with the school's annex a block away.
The next year, the Hamels group provided $13,000 so that Taylor Elementary could install a new curtain for its cafetorium.
"The old one was 50 years old and full of allergens," says Drossner. "Our kids have a high incidence of asthma, and we really needed the new curtain."
In 2011, Taylor Elementary received another small stipend from the foundation, $2,500, for recess equipment. But the school staff was hoping that Taylor might have a chance at a more extensive project Hamels and his wife were considering.
"They wanted to do something that would make a difference for kids," says Drossner. "They don't just look at applications. They visit every site. They're very involved."
After the foundation and the school maneuvered through the district bureaucracy to make sure that all rules and regulations were followed, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted in May 2012 to accept the $300,000 donation for the Bayard Taylor playground.
'A major hit'
The completed play area includes a soccer field and refurbished basketball backboards ("They now have nets on the rims for the first time," Drossner says). Students can challenge each other to games at a chess/checkers station, and they can earn the opportunity to use one of the school's iPads at a learning center specially outfitted for use of the tablet devices.
The project also has a greenhouse where students will take part in a program called "Rock 'n Renew" in which they will learn to grow vegetables that can be served in school lunches.
To remind the community of how the playground came to be, a wall adjoining the play area includes a colorful mural of the school's southpaw benefactor in various stages of his pitching motion.
In addition, the project provides plenty of playground equipment that enables children to take a break from their studies and climb, spin, shimmy, slide and run. The playscapes help the school in its efforts to emphasize health and exercise and combat obesity.
Drossner makes sure that all the Bayard Taylor students, whether housed in the main building or in the annex up the street, get plenty of time to enjoy the school's new addition.
"This is a legacy given to our children, says Drossner. "To say that it is a major hit is an understatement. The kids are on it constantly — before, during and after school."