HOW LOCAL MOM Kristina Talbert SPEARHEADED EFFORTS TO PROVIDE PLAYGROUND EQUIPMENT FOR
J.I. WATSON ELEMENTARY BY BILL COYNE
Recess. Unbeknownst to us as kids in elementary school, this was a rite of passage. I can remember sitting at my desk, staring at the clock as the minute hand ka-chunked closer to 9:25am. We all had friends scattered throughout various home rooms, but we all waited to hear the recess buzzer echoing through the hallways. That sweet sound meant we had 20 minutes of our own free time, as we raced to the playground to climb towering slides, hang upside-down on the monkey bars, or swing as high as we could until the swing chains went slack. This is what childhood memories are made of, right? Well, not for everyone.
Fast forward to April of this year. J. I. Watson Elementary School in Iowa hosted its yearly Easter Egg hunt for the students, encouraging parents to participate with their children. The kids were busy scouring the patches of grass for eggs that were scattered throughout. Afterwards, while walking back to class with their colorful bounty, Kristina Talbert was making conversation with her son, Lincoln. Kristina casually asked her son, “Can you show me your playground?”
“We don’t have one,” replied 7-year-old Lincoln, a J. I.Watson student of two years. “What do you do during recess?” asked mom. “We just make up games and run around” was Lincoln’s reply.
This did not sit right with Kristina. How do first- and second-graders not have playground equipment to play on at a local public school?
After an initial query to the physical education teacher regarding the lack of a playground eqipment, Kristina learned the school had been raising funds for playground equipment, yet were far short. Wanting to lend her support, Kristina quickly landed a meeting with the school principal, Ms. Reed.
“I had to be careful. I really didn’t want to step on any toes. I mean, I’m just a mom. I didn’t know how far along the school was, or if I was privy to that information,”says Kristina. “But, as a parent, I’m genuinely interested.” With that, she simply asked, “What can I do to help?”
There’s a sentiment in the small town Iowa public schools on the outskirts of the school district, that the Calcasieu Parish School Board seemingly forgets the little guys. The lack of funding borders on neglect, the attention given is dismal, and this particular school was struggling to fund a playground no child has ever had the pleasure of enjoying throughout the school’s history. Yet, other area public school campuses bask in all that is new, and seemingly, every necessity or need is catered to. Thus began a fierce drive to get the kids what they deserve and what every student should be entitled to.
Over the past two years, J. I. Watson had raised a nominal $17,000 for a playground, and that was something to work with. But, how far will the money go? What’s the going rate for quality playground equipment? Kristina began by reaching out to an playground equipment outfitter in Florida for playground packages and pricing. After some back and forth correspondence, she learned a modest and simple swing set with climbing bars would require an additional $20,000.
“At least then, I had a base, something to strive for. But, I’ve never done anything like this. I don’t know how to ask people for money, but God provided the strength in me to make this happen,” says Kristina. “I began asking business acquaintances for donations, any amount. $500 or $100, I didn’t care, but I needed something. I’m not a saleswoman, I’m nervous, but I have to do this. I reached out to my friend, Mike Willis, of Mike Willis Ford with my pitch: ‘For a child at a Calcasieu Parish public school not to have playground equipment is unacceptable. We can help change that.’ And then I explained the situation.”
What began as a generous $1000 contribution, quickly doubled for the benefit of the kids, but Mike Willis didn’t stop there. With a promise to rally donors and a little time he vowed $10,000 and words of encouragement. “You’re going to grow through this, you have everything needed to make this a success.” At the conclusion of the phone call, Kristina wept in joy, as the substantial donation further fueled the fire within. With the help of faculty, neighbors, and friends, the mission was gaining traction. Driven by the belief that this is not acceptable for the kids to go without, Kristina kept beating on doors to secure funding.
Don’s Car Wash launched a ticket-selling fundraiser program specifically for the cause. Essentially, it was a 50/50 split, ensuring half of the proceeds ticket sales would be given to the school, which was another step forward. However, there were some speed bumps along the way.
One hometown business declined to make any kind of a donation, stating it was not in their best interest (unless they received public recognition). Another reality was that the Calcasieu Parish School Board was not in any way, shape or form providing funding for any of this. To avoid dragging the project through a quagmire, Kristina was strongly advised to purchase the equipment through a certified supplier, thus severing the months-long rapport she had built with the Florida vendor.
The CPSB was generous enough to green-light the project and allowed it to proceed unimpeded, nothing more. “I knew I would have setbacks,”admits Kristina. “But, I remembered a inspiring quote from Maya Angelou, and I kept repeating it to myself as necessary: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, and how you can still come out of it.”
In just a few short weeks, a combined total of $42,000 had been secured. However, they were still far short of their goal. Kristina and her husband, Chris, often started their day brainstorming over breakfast alongside other morning regulars at Big Daddy’s Sports Grill. It was there where she spotted a familiar face, Richard Baggett, who is in the local property and financing business. Wanting only suggestions as to avenues to explore to look for potential donors, Kristina explained the situation. Baggett, appalled by the fact that some local public school kids didn’t have playground eqipment, was immediately on board. Asking how much the project was short, she stated she only needed $20,000.
He replied, “We’re going to get you $40,000.”
“But we only need…” she tried to plea. “We’re asking for $40,000.” Baggett insisted. Through friends, favors, and private donors, Baggett stated ‘we will make this happen, but I definitely need some time on this.’
Several more weeks passed by, and Kristina became anxious, wondering if and when the money was going to be available. Then, after a lot of wrangling, handshakes and deals, Richard Baggett called Kristina.
“Are you sitting down?“ asked Baggett. “No, I’m in the…” her reply was cut off. “I need you to sit down for this. Congratulations! You have $100,000 coming to you for the playground equipment.”
An overwhelming sense of accomplishment came over her as she broke down in tears. All told, in only a few short months, a total of $142,000 had been raised for playground equipment for the children of J.I. Watson Elementary. The goal has been met, the goal had been exceeded, and the funding ended up expanding the initial plan. Not only was fully-functional playground equipment provided for the first and second graders, there was so much money, an additional playground was constructed for the third through fifth graders. The recess bell suddenly meant much more for the students.
“The joy of listening to the kids playing, was all so worth it. That was my reward,” Kristina says with her infectious smile. “God guided me in every move I needed, to make this happen for them and all the kids that will attend this school for years to come.”