By Spike Eskin
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The forecast often calls for rain, but a drop never seems to fall. The sun shines, the temperature hovers around 90 degrees, and the lives of many children and adults alike are changed forever. It’s the annual Eagles Youth Partnership Playground Build, and it happened for the 17th time on Wednesday.
The site was the WD Kelley School in North Philadelphia, where just about every Philadelphia Eagles employee, including coaches and players, showed up to rebuild the playground for the 350 students who show up there Monday through Friday. As per tradition, it was raining and 65 degrees the day before the build, but 90 degrees and sunny on Wednesday.
Sarah Martinez-Helfman, the executive director of EYP, has been at every playground build for the last 17 years. She started the organization 18 years ago, and it’s grown to become one of the premier charity organizations for any sports franchise. “It’s a thrill, it’s one of my favorite days of the year,” she said. “It’s about the kids, and half a year planning goes into this one day of erecting this playground and painting all of these murals and putting in the turf, all of it.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Eagles Players Help Build North Philly Playground
“What’s cool about this is we say to the kids ‘hey, we want you to dream, we want you to imagine what you’ll be when you grow up’ and all these types of things, but we often don’t show kids how to manifest their dreams. So here’s this dream of a playground build, and it doesn’t just happen. They’re involved in the design of the playground, their drawings get involved into the overall mural design, some kids see their actual drawings up on the walls larger than life. They see this whole process over a period of months, and then on the day, their environment is totally transformed.”
If possible, ‘totally transformed’ is an understatement. What looks more like a vacant lot than what you’d imagine a playground to be, morphs into the sort of a playground you’d imagine in a Disney movie. The blocks surrounding the school give way to a burst of color and hope.
“The hope is that while we’re transforming the environment outside, that you get this safe and vibrant and welcoming place to play, we’re trying to transform their belief on the inside that what can happen, and the kind of work it takes to manifest dreams.”
For the WD Kelley School, it’s not just about the nearly 350 students currently enrolled.
“With all of the schools that are closing next year, another 150 children from other schools are going to be fed into this one. And so, this is important to create a welcoming space, not just for the kids who are returning for their last year, but for new kids who are coming really to a foreign place to them. And we want them to really feel like this is theirs and they are welcome here,” Martinez-Helfman said.
It’s not just ‘build the playground and leave’ for Martinez-Helfman and EYP, they’re invested in what happens to the school and the students after it all happens.
“We’re doing a study right now, an 18-month study at the University of Pennsylvania on the impact of the playground build, and we’ll have the results of that in the Fall,” Martinez-Helfman said. “This isn’t just about us feeling good, and patting ourselves on the back, this is about really creating change for kids.”
Though the process is months long, and the day at the school begins early in the morning, it’s always a special moment when the players and coaches arrive. Students line up in two long lines, and cheer and give high fives to players and coaches as they arrive together on buses. Wednesday was no exception.
Eagles players are involved in many charity events, probably more than the average person would imagine. But you can see the change in many players’ body language the moment they step on the playground. DeSean Jackson goes from superstar sometimes-diva wide receiver, to the best friend of a young student, goofing around as Jackson does a radio interview. “My man here wants to say something to you,” Jackson told 94WIP’s Anthony Gargano, and insisted the child take the mic. “Let’s go Eagles!” the child yelled.
It was Matt Barkley’s first EYP playground build. “It’s a blessing now that I’m here to give back,” Barkley said. “These kids are so excited to be here. It’s fun to help them be excited about painting their own school and putting the new playground in. It’s cool to be here.”
“It’s cool because I remember when I was there age. Looking up to college players and NFL players,” Barkley said. “So now that I’m in those shoes, and kids look up to us, it’s good to have the privilege of giving back and making their day.”
The object of scrutiny on and off the field outside of the school, many players find the opposite within the gates of the school. Students followed him like he was the pied piper the very first time he showed up at the playground build, at that time just a backup. Not to ask him questions about the game or his past, just to be close to him.
Jason Avant is often times the last one on the bus, Martinez-Helfman said. He’ll stay in the turf they put in the middle of the playground throwing and catching passes with students. “They have to drag him out of there,” she said.
“It’s a blast,” Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said. Just like Barkley, it was his first playground build. “We’ve got a great fan following [in Philadelphia], that supports the Eagles through thick and thin. It’s a win-win, I know we’re having a lot of fun here, and I know the kids are having a lot of fun. It’s great for both sides.”
“It’s really special when a kid asks a player to sign their shirt. We all wear the same shirts that day, and then the player turns around and says ‘hey, will you sign mine.’ And what happens between the players and the child in that moment,” Martinez-Helfman said. Many players leave with their shirts covered in signatures by school staff and students.
When the day ended, it was another playground build in the books for EYP, but another day of healing that will last a lifetime for students and volunteers alike.
“This is a nourishing thing for me and everyone in the Eagles organization. We come in thinking this is for the kids, that it’s a one-way gift. But it’s a gift in return. It’s really special.”