Playgrounds in Bloom for Children of New Orleans

At Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in New Orleans, 45 students gathered in the cafeteria late last year to design their very own "dream playground" on blank pieces of paper.

What started out as a few outlandish scribbles has turned into a beacon of hope for a city ravaged by natural disaster and crime.

The children's designs were the first step in the New Orleans "Playground Building Blitz" -- a 24-hour construction project of six new playgrounds at area elementary schools -- that is under way right now.

By the end of the day, six schools will have brand-new state-of-the-art playgrounds equipped with slides, swings, rock-climbing walls, and special equipment specifically designed by the students, like rocket-shaped climbing equipment and a replica of the New Orleans' Superdome.

The blitz is being sponsored by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit group focused on providing recreational spaces, and Fannie Mae.

KaBOOM! pledged to build 100 new playgrounds in Gulf Coast communities affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as part of its program, Operation Playground.

KaBOOM! has already completed 19 playgrounds -- all designed by children, planned by local residents, and constructed in one day by volunteers.

This "Playground Building Blitz" will be the first time volunteers attempt six playgrounds in one day -- a boost that is much needed in New Orleans' still storm-damaged communities.

After Hurricane Katrina, children in New Orleans have lacked safe public recreational places, at a time perhaps, when they need them the most.

Many playgrounds were washed away or severely damaged by Katrina. Many trailer parks erected by the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency still sit in public parks where children used to play. And a recent crime wave has deterred many parents from letting their kids outside to play.

Chrissie McHenry, Fannie Mae's communications director, thinks that creating these spaces for kids to play is a crucial step in bringing the community back from disaster and restoring New Orleans' spirit.

"With the playground project, you're not just rebuilding homes, you're rebuilding communities," McHenry said.

According to Franklin's principal, Charlotte Matthew, whose school will receive a new playground, community restoration is exactly what is taking place.

Since taking on the first steps of the playground project, she has seen the neighborhood around Benjamin Franklin Elementary School mobilize and offer its support in ways she has never seen before.

Local companies volunteered their machinery and manpower to remove the 500 square feet of asphalt, previously the only recreational space for students, to make room for the new playground. The school's parent-teacher organization has volunteered to provide breakfast, lunch and 2,000 water bottles for the 500 Fannie Mae and KaBOOM! volunteers who are building the playground today.

Other members of the community have come together in true New Orleans' fashion to make the event an all-day party. A local radio station is broadcasting live from the school, the student choir is performing, and local cheerleaders will be on hand for support and entertainment.

The "Playground Building Blitz" has not only fostered a sense of community togetherness and rebuilding, but it has also provided children with something positive and stable to look forward to.

"The best thing will be to watch the faces of the children watching this transformation take place, to give them a positive outlook when there are so many things going on right now that are hard to deal with," Matthew said.

Katrina scars were evident in some of the children's playground designs. Amid the outlandish and imaginative playground designs that called for swimming pools and football fields, KaBOOM! employee Sarah Pinsky noticed something else.

Many students drew "dream playgrounds" that were situated on hills, safe from floodwater, and that had elevated roofs. Pinsky and child psychologists believe this is a product of what the children have been through and demonstrates their need to seek shelter and feel safe.

At a time when so many students are temporarily housed with relatives or in FEMA trailers, the school can be the only location that feels stable and permanent.

A new state-of-the art playground and place for kids to "just be kids," according to Fannie Mae's McHenry, is essential in "bringing New Orleans back to what it used to be."