September 26, 2013

Manual Labor

Every year the Washington Wizards send me a minimum of one survey to gauge how I view the fan experience and how engaged I am as a season ticket holder. A long long time ago (maybe five or six years?), one of the questions was about volunteering and whether I would be willing to participate in charitable events featuring Wizards players or staff if the opportunity was afforded. In a moment of unbridled enthusiasm and with visions of me and Gilbert Arenas serving food at a community kitchen or something like that, I responded "yes". Then I pretty much forgot all about it.

Then about a month ago, there was a call for volunteers in the Wizards' weekly season ticket holder e-mail to assist in building a playground at a school in southeast Washington D.C. I remembered my reaction to the opportunity for this sort of event during the Arenas years, thought about it for a few days and then finally decided to take the plunge and sign up. I said I would do it five or six years ago; I better live up to my word now. 

Now, this is a bit of an unusual gesture for me. I generally think of myself as a fairly selfish person. When I engage in charitable activities (which I do pretty regularly), it is usually by donating money or other things I have purchased with money. I have a standard list of organizations I donate to each year and I love going toy shopping every holiday season before dumping my entire haul into a Toys For Tots bin at Toys 'R Us.

But volunteering is a different story. I gave my time for a day once to renovate a house in D.C. when the company where I worked was celebrating its 60th anniversary and I've donated other time professionally but this represents a step forward toward selflessness for me. I feel awkward just admitting my lack of sweat equity in my community. I swear I'm not a bad person. I just need some coaching is all. 

So today instead of getting up and walking a mile or so to my office for another dose of the same daily grind, I hopped on the Orange line to L'Enfant Plaza then transferred to the Green line for a quick ride over to Congress Heights Metro station on the other side of the Anacostia River. I don't usually come this way. This was definitely a different day for me.

9 a.m. No playground.
My destination this morning was the Eagle Academy Public Charter School, a charter school in the District of Columbia Public Schools system located on Wheeler Avenue SE about a quarter mile south of St. Elizabeth's Hospital. The school was founded about ten years ago with an initial enrollment around 110 students; today the school has 762 students covering pre-Kindergarten through third grade. The school seemed to have a pretty good sized campus from our initial walk around the site and there is an addition (including an indoor swimming pool) under construction adjacent to the school's main building. The one thing the Academy didn't have prior to today was a playground for the children. The nearest playground for the students was down a hill and across busy Mississippi Avenue to the south. We fixed all that today.

Before I arrived at Eagle Academy today, I imagined the construction of a playground to be a fairly simple task involving a few dedicated teams of volunteers. The initial correspondence we received after we signed up seemed contrary to my intuition. The directions we were sent earlier this week suggested there was little parking for volunteers while also pointing out about 60 available parking spaces. How many people were going to be involved in this thing? There can't possibly be more than 60 people involved, can there??? I now know that I didn't have any idea what I was in for.

Me and G Wiz on a break. Actually I was on a break. G Wiz wasn't really doing any work.
After signing in at the registration table, I received a blank name tag with a pictogram (skull and crossbones; how cool is that?) which I promptly wrote my name on and then stood around looking at all the other people on the site. And there were a lot of people. And they were all standing around doing pretty much nothing. I started to have no confidence in the ability of the organizers to utilize this many people and expected a lot of standing around for the rest of the day. The build effort actually turned out to be the exact opposite. The company organizing the build, a national non-profit organization named Kaboom!, really knew what they were doing and split all the volunteers into highly effective teams doing very specific tasks. Apparently, this was their 2,355th playground build nation-wide.

Little did we know, but the name tags we picked up at registration determined what we would do for the rest of our day on site. I soon found out the incredibly cool skull and crossbones name tags (way better than fruit or Hello Kitty or words of encouragement or horses or anything else) destined me for about six hours of shoveling and moving mulch (allegedly 160 cubic yards although I had a lot of help) from an enormous pile to the playground surface. As a volunteer assignment, I'm actually OK with this job. The last thing I want on a construction site is to be assigned a task that requires construction skills. I have difficulty knocking a nail in straight but I know for sure that I can move stuff from one location to another. I can lift and carry no problem.

Having said all that, this was a tough day. I'm not as young as I once was and I have very little experience with manual labor in my last 20 years. Call me a baby but it's really difficult to move mulch for hours on end. And I'm talking about moving it by hand. Like a shovelful at a time from the seemingly endless enormous pile on to tarps and carrying it alone or in pairs over to a very large unbuilt playground. We had a few wheelbarrows but the majority of the mulch without doubt got moved with brute manual labor. Shovel. Lift. Carry. Dump. Repeat. That was my day today.

12:30 p.m. Looking good. Finishing is going to be no problem, right?

The entire exercise was supposed to take from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. At first it seemed like we would finish a few hours ahead of time. The mulch crew (which I would estimate occupied about a third of the volunteers) was actually told to stand down for a bit to let the playground equipment folks catch up. There were only a few areas we could move our enormous pile a tarp-ful at a time to without other equipment being in place.

But later on in the day, it seemed like there was no way we would finish. Concrete finally got poured around some of the in-ground posts for the swings and slides around noon, which allowed the mulch move to proceed. But some concrete pours lagged to within a half hour of the finish time, meaning there were entire ground areas still not covered with mulch 30 minutes before the ribbon cutting. Incredibly, I guess doing this sort of thing 2,354 times before breeds some sort of success because we managed to finish everything on time. Barely, but on time.

Bradley Beal and Glen Rice, Jr. hard at work.

Of course, this recollection of my day wouldn't belong in this blog without some sort of tangible Wizards connection. Late in the day, we did get some help from Wizards players Bradley Beal and Glen Rice, Jr. After breaking a serious sweat twice and feeling like my knees wouldn't stand moving mulch much longer, those two finally showed up at about 2:30 p.m. They were enlisted to put together something resembling some basketball hoops and put in place the Wizards logo on the playground but other than that didn't engage in much heavy lifting. And I'm totally cool with all that. It was a boost for me that they showed up and the last thing I need is Bradley Beal hurting himself moving a part of our enormous pile of mulch two days before training camp begins.

As I write this post, I know I'm going to be sore tomorrow. I know the sleep that I am craving right now is going to cause me some sort of pain in the morning. And I'm OK with that. The stories that the school's principal told us just before the ribbon cutting about some of the kids crying because they couldn't use the playground right away and the fact that these students no longer have to cross a busy road to play makes me feel like my day was spent well. Better in fact than sitting at my desk at work making sure everyone did what they were supposed to do. I guess being a little bit selfless once in a while isn't that bad for me. I'm not saying I'm running out next week and doing this again, but I think today was worth it.

3:45 p.m. Playground installed. Time to go home.

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