At Westgate Elementary School in Lakewood, students are now enjoying a new playground courtesy of the efforts of parents, kids, Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) and the City of Lakewood.

These community partners worked together to design and fund a new playground that aims to educate and entertain children in playing outdoors. But one parent in the Westgate neighborhood just off Wadsworth Boulevard and West Yale Avenue could see that the project would also return something missing for the grown-ups in this indoor, digitally driven age.

“We were able to use that process to really bring together a community that had not previously been real close,” said Wendi Strom, whose son attends Westgate. “Elementary schools, you hear, are the heart of the neighborhood. The community had been a little bit fractured. At the playground party, we had the church and the Cub Scouts, and we were able to bring everyone together for a common goal.”

She began leading the effort to update the neglected playground, a behemoth of a project that took two years of fundraising and another year of planning.

“All you had to do was look at it,” she explained, “I believe the school was built back in ’72 so the structures were 30-plus years old. The structures were also covered in wood particle board so that the kids wouldn’t fall off the higher areas.”

Strom started by reaching out to neighbors and small businesses because she knew “the entire neighborhood had something to gain from our efforts.”

Westgate students joined in as well, having special events to raise money such as kids paying to be able to wear a hat to school. But the biggest contributor to the effort was GOCO through a program that supports efforts to inspire kids and their families to explore and play in the outdoors. GOCO provides grants to improve school playgrounds, with an emphasis on outdoor education and connecting kids to nature and outdoor learning.

Allison Scheck, marketing and community relations manager for Lakewood’s Community Resources Department, said that getting students to help design the new playground was central to the success of securing a GOCO grant. “For the School Yard Initiative Grant Program, GOCO wants to make sure that the students have a say in their future. Lakewood staff members were able to help with that process,” Scheck said. “We’re really excited that the process resulted in such a successful collaboration among the parents, kids, community and the City, and we’re so thankful for GOCO.”

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This collaboration across many parts of the community created the ability to address the ongoing issue of finding ways to pay for renovating or replacing outdated school playgrounds. As Strom noted, Jeffco Public Schools has little money for playgrounds. “They have to allocate money for mental health and kids in the classroom, and unless the school is undergoing a grant type process, playgrounds are very low on the totem pole,” she said. “People in the neighborhood were driving to other parks, which doesn’t make much sense, and the kids deserved better than that.”

Westgate is one of six schools that were granted money for design during that grant cycle, followed by a second round of funding for building the playground itself. Efforts became a reality when ground was broken on the playground in May 2016, and the ribbon-cutting for the new playground occurred during Back to School night for this school year.