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It Takes a Village: Building a Paradise Playground

Brooklyn Swag Shop and The Fund for Public Schools are on a mission to build a safe play space for Bed-Stuy children with special needs.

"No parent wants to hear that their child was hurt today," said Selly Ferguson, assistant principal at Public School 4K, located at 234 Herkimer Street in Bed-Stuy.

"I never want to have to ask the nurse to make those sort of phone calls, but it happens all the time. And then the first thing a parent asks is, 'Where was everybody?'

"And I tell them, We were right here."

Ferguson's expression is a mix of pain and frustration as she talks about the unique challenges of caring for the kindergartners through 2nd-graders who attend P4K, a school network that serves around 300 children with special needs and severe disabilities.The Bed-Stuy site serves 30 students.

When Ferguson arrived at P4K four years ago, she said she was shocked to find that the outdoor play area of the school consisted of several concrete stairs that led to a barren, concrete court yard. Even worse, she learned, the Bed-Stuy site was the only school of all the P4K schools that was not safety-proofed!

And for children with physical and mental disabilities, the concrete stairs and un-padded walls and floor were nothing short of a recipe for disaster. Already,  she had report to parents more accidents than she was comfortable with-- most of which, she said, could have been prevented.

"They need fresh air to thrive; I want them to go outside; I want them to play," she said. "But I'm also very concerned, because so many of them have mobility issues: Some of them are in wheelchairs; some of them have walkers. So the likelihood of them falling is even greater than a typical child."

She did what she could first, which was install a brightly painted mural on the back bare wall. Her second order of business was to get rubber padding for the entire playground.

Ferguson pointed out, she'd been down a similar road before, at her previous school. Similar to P4K, the school's playground started as a large parking lot with no play artifacts. After appealing to an organization, Out to Play, she and the other charter school in the building successfully secured a grant. 

"I have watched this type of project from its genesis, to its fruition, and what was so beautiful about that process was that students were included in the planning," she said. "I think all children-- not just special needs children-- deserve a safe place to play and develop-- a space that honors them as human beings."

Ferguson estimated she would need $15,000 to get started at P4K. It seemed doable enough. But everywhere she turned to ask for the money, she found she was hitting a brick wall.

Even the central office at P4K, which fully supported her efforts, was too busy worrying about educational compliance and the growing demands of the Department of Education to concentrate on ancillary fundraising efforts. So she was on her own.

She reached out to several corporate partners with a donor focus on education-- Lowes, Home Depot, Nickelodeon -- but with no luck: "We're not a large school, so we tend to be overlooked for the bigger grants that are typically given to public schools," Ferguson said.

Ferguson reached out to Liani Greaves, who is the founder of Brooklyn Swag, a Brooklyn memorabilia shop. Greaves, a professional fundraiser and a Bed-Stuy resident, has always used a portion of all of her profits from Brooklyn Swag to give back to a local school project in need of financial support.

"I kept thinking, this is something that shouldn't exist. And $15,000, that's not a lot of money," said Greaves. "And so this is something that we should be able to fund ourselves. And when I says 'we,' I mean 'me,' included. These children live in this neighborhood. They belong to us."

Greaves made P4K her newest recipient of proceeds from Brooklyn Swag, a campaign she is promoting and calling "Paradise Playground."

She also has helped Ferguson set up a fundraising site through Fund for Public Schools, a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging private investment into public schools and community involvement.

The Fund for Public Schools site acts as a crowd-sourcing site for educators. But, unlike other sites such as Kickstarter or Indie Go Go, the Fund for Public Schools site does not take a substantial percentage of the total money raised nor does it limit the amount of time in which to raise it. Additionally, it serves as a hub to introduce each of its crowd-sourcing campaigns to a list of potential funders.

They launched on Fund for Public Schools on September 5, and so far they have received four online gifts totaling $675. Donors are encouraged to donate as little as $10 or as much as $5,000. And the site stays up until Ferguson or the school is ready to take it down.

But Ferguson said they have no plans of taking it down anytime soon, since their needs are ongoing:

"There's always so much to do-- I want to get green space out on the playground, an awning for when it rains, technology upgrades, there's so many ideas I have for the school that a continuous donation would really help to make these dreams come true."

A small school of 30 Bedford-Stuyvesant students with special needs may not be a priority for some. But for both Ferguson and Greaves, they are hoping (and believing) it will rise as a priority for its own community in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

"I was raised right up the street; my grandmother bought that house three generations ago," said Greaves pointing up and eastward. "You always took care of your neighbors, brought them food when they were hungry. That's what we did… This is what Brooklyn Swag shop is for me right now.

"And this is what this campaign should be about."

For more information and to view a video on the project, go here. To donate to the "Paradise Playground" project, go here.

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