This is the continuing saga...well the final chapter...of my friend Vik Schaaf and her absolutely amazing playground project in Reedsport. She is Leslie Knope with some serious Kingdom. I am sitting here in the early hours of the morning and I am just floored. Floored by her work. Floored by God's faithfulness. Floored by the risk of her whole venture. Read the final chapter in Vik's journey to do youth ministry differently.
2nd Samuel 24:24- "I will not sacrifice to God offerings that cost me nothing."
Everything was perfect. I could not believe it. For the first time in my life, something was going my way and with very little back peddling or resistance. We had raised nearly $150,000. This was a full $15,000 over our goal! And we were going to build the coolest park possible in my hometown. The orders were sent, the volunteers were at the ready, the contractor was hired, and anticipation was building.
Then everything hit a wall.
The emails started to get confusing. I found myself typing in my high voice, a sort of screaming without the caps lock on. Every semblance of me was trying to reel my point home: I asked for enough money, why are you telling me there is not enough money?! And they kept telling me my math was off. I did ask for enough money, but red tape is going to get in my way anyway and slow down this great operation. I heard the words of Leslie Knope ring in those repetitive emails, “What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.” It gave me a little bit of hope, considering I felt like this was all my fault. I started this project. I wrote the grants. I fundraised the money and sent the purchase orders. If we did not have enough money, it was going to be my fault! Another Leslie Knope quote came to mind, “Everything hurts and I’m dying.”
Let me stop myself here. I could tell this story one of two ways. I could tell you a really awful, stressful story about overcoming budget shortfalls and convoluted judicial conversations. Or I could tell you an amazing story of perseverance and restoration. I choose the latter.
It was Sunday morning. I woke up with the sun, knowing I had a full day ahead. For the first time in months, I paused. Breathed. I was overcome with a wave of emotion. Gratefulness. Excitement. Fear, but in a calm way. The only thought that clouded my brain was that our youth group was about to do some of the most important work we have ever done.
We gathered in a circle outside the church that afternoon and prayed for the week ahead. Prayed for sunshine, safety, and energy. It was to be Holy week. Our pastor shared that as a youth, he traveled during Easter Week with his youth group doing volunteer work. He shared that it was some of the most important work he ever did. He encouraged them in their volunteer efforts. He affirmed the same thought I had earlier that morning.
Any anxiety I felt was directed towards the fact that I had 24 youth and adult volunteers who were about to embark on building a seriously huge playground structure. This is not your run of the mill backyard structure either. And even though many of them had some entry level training the summer before while installing a smaller commercial playground structure, it was nothing compared to the new series of equipment. There would be nearly 60 holes dug into the ground. Steel and aluminum posts that stood 14 feet tall. Over 10,000 pieces of hardware. Daunting is an understatement. Unqualified was a sure fire truth.
The anxiety I felt in the preparation of the project was not unlike the fear I felt in those phone conversations a week before. But I knew this truth to be unmistakable: God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called. He was not going to bring us this far only to let us down. Jesus did not go to the tomb to rest, but to prove His undying resilience. One way or another, this playground was going to be built on budget and on time.
Fast forward to Monday morning. We arose from our slumber on the church floor to blue skies. We prayed for sun, though there was rain in the forecast. Spirits were high and excitement was bubbling over. When we arrived at the park, everyone got straight to work. A rock wall was pieced together, 26 holes were dug, the first load of surfacing material arrived, and all the materials were unloaded. Then came that unmistakable sound only a child who grew up at the coast knows as second nature. The first pound of thunder followed by a pouring rain that bothers to give no warning. We broke for lunch and returned to find all our holes filled with water. We bought out the town’s supply of rain gear and wanted to work through the downpour, but our contractor told us we were going to lose a half day.
Any sense of momentum I was feeling was shot. Team morale was lower than the 36 inch holes we had dug that morning.
The rest of the week moved sluggishly, but it continued none the less. The rain came in sideways, but we persevered. We pumped water from holes by hand and mimicked childhood as we pulled wet sand out of holes with pails and shovels. It took 24 of us to raise the half ton rock wall into place. Students broke into small groups and put together minor accessory pieces. By Tuesday afternoon we had only managed to put together a mere skeleton of a playground structure. Our contractor pulled me aside and told me that by the next day’s end, this place would really look like a park. It would be like day and night.
I took that message into our devotions Tuesday night. Encouraged my students to keep running the race set before us. To take breaks when needed, but keep working towards the cause. On Wednesday the cavalry arrived, bringing a large group of community volunteers and city workers for an entire day. They helped us transform a few bones into a body of playground artwork. We had a swing set, a rock wall, a tire swing, and a three story structure that boasted views of the entire coastal city.
We were empowered. Thursday we worked against the clock to get all the final holes dug and slides into place before concrete arrived. I cannot tell you the sigh of relief we all breathed as soon as the first hose of cement went into the ground. The hard part was over. The pieces left were easy to assemble. The house was built and the decorating phase had begun. The final addition of pieces was completed on Friday, along with several dump trucks and Bobcats bringing in our surfacing materials for spreading. This was a welcome change from the previous summer when we were forced to haul wood chips in one wheelbarrow at a time. (To give some perspective on this, they moved three times as many chips in less than half the amount of time). [Praise God for technology, am I right?]
On Friday afternoon at 5 PM, the group gathered on the completed structure for a picture. Each student took an inaugural first ride down a slide of their choice. Joy was abundant. Youth were shouting, “We built that! We built that!” I promise you, we had made future construction management majors out of at least four of the girls in my youth group. It was evident that so much more than a playground was built.
The icing on the cake came Saturday morning. We invited the city manager back to the church for a surprise. You see, the part I left out of this story was the gift the youth group had been preparing behind the scenes all week. When they were absolutely exhausted from 8 to 9 hours of park building, they picked up brushes and painted a custom mural for the park. A majestic lion that would serve as a symbol of both spirit and pride.
We did one last drive by the park Saturday afternoon on our way out of town. I stopped the van in the middle of the road to take a good look at the preschool playground and the new big kid’s playground together. All of my anxieties and apprehensions about the project had been squashed by a build that was clearly nothing short of a labor of love. The youth were ready to get home and beckoning me to continue driving. But the words of Miss Knope came to mind one more time as we sat idle on Elm street, “Wait, give me a second, I need to remember every little thing about how perfect my life is right now.”
Awesome. I wish I could have been a student in Vik's ministry in high school.