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Thiel students tackle local playground project

Thiel College students brave the rain to build a playground at Riverside Park in Greenville, Pennsylvania. Photo provided by Thiel College

We have all heard someone say it: “Kids these days,” mutter those who are worried about turning over social responsibility to the next generation. Always there is concern for the future of civilization.
Increasingly, the volunteerism of current and recent college students may mean that we will hear this phrase a little less often in the near future.
In one short week in April, a spot in Riverside Park in Greenville, Pennsylvania, Thiel College’s hometown, went from an empty green space to a large, exciting new playground for community children. The new playground, which is already a hit with local kids, wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work and service of more than 350 Thiel College students.
The whirlwind five-day, all-volunteer effort brought together Thiel students, faculty, and staff and Greenville-area teenagers, retirees, parents, and others. The playground build served as this year’s “Spring into Action Day” project for the Thiel campus. Spring into Action is the annual “spring clean-up” day, which is scheduled to coincide with Earth Day. Students often clean up campus or downtown areas of Greenville, but this year Dean of Students Mike McKinney had another idea.

“I decided to volunteer because I have always enjoyed helping kids and trying my best to let kids have fun.”

“The playground was a very visible, tangible project,” said McKinney. “We thought the playground would be a legacy that our students could leave behind instead of just picking up trash or raking leaves.”
“The students are excited by the tangible outcome,” explained Joyce DeFrancesco, Thiel’s director of public relations. “They love seeing the improvements, especially when they see kids on the playground,” which is adjacent to campus.

A common project for the common good

A $50,000 state grant and fundraising efforts in the local community helped pay for the equipment, which is valued at $300,000 but actually cost $120,000, thanks to donated labor and materials. Without the army of volunteers, who worked more than 1,000 shifts during the week, the park would not have been built as cost-effectively as it was.
The most significant project workday was Thiel’s Spring into Action Day, when nearly 440 volunteers, most of them Thiel students, brought the project close to completion. In fact, McKinney said the Thiel students helped to get the project back on schedule that day, since the project was about a day behind due to difficulties with the weather.
“I decided to volunteer because I have always enjoyed helping kids and trying my best to let kids have fun,” said Ronnell Hunt, a first-year student from New Castle, Pennsylvania, who helped set up swings and laid tarp, pebbles and mulch for the playground’s foundation. “I learned how to work together as a team with complete strangers in order to get the job done.”
The new playground in Riverside Park includes monkey bars, a castle maze, two bouncy bridges, a twisty slide, a dragon slide, a tunnel, a train, and a train depot.

“Our goal is deeper engagement in community life. One campus project won’t do that, but it does demonstrate our intention to integrate college students into the community and vice versa.”

“Thiel College and Greenville working together for the betterment of the community is a natural fit,” said Dr. Troy VanAken, Thiel College president. “Not only does it align with the goals of our new strategic plan, which includes an emphasis on community service and being good citizens, but it helps create a stronger connection between the borough and our faculty, staff, and students who live, work, and learn here. We look forward to continuing this partnership in the future and helping to make additional contributions to the local community.”
“Our goal is deeper engagement in community life,” added DeFrancesco. “One campus project won’t do that, but it does demonstrate our intention to integrate college students into the community and vice versa.”
Besides learning valuable lessons about community service, some students earned college credit with internships — like senior Kyle Kohut, an environmental science major from Hermitage, Pennsylvania, who served as the project’s inventory manager, and senior Cylvie Cyuzuzo, a business communication major from Rwanda, Africa, who handled some public relations for the project.
“Overall, it was a great experience — working and volunteering with them,” said Cyuzuzo. “I hope the kids enjoy the park!”
The success of this year’s Spring into Action Day project in Riverside Park already has the campus thinking about what can be done for the community next year. “This was really a good experience for all involved, even though the weather was not cooperative.” DeFrancesco said. “We’ll take some time to decide what the next community project will be, but I am certain there will be one.”

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