Not Just Child’s Play: Portsmouth Playground Reimagined

By Betsy Sherman Walker

It all started on one of those warmish January days.

Laurel Handel Polselli, and her husband, Marco, found themselves at the Turnpike Avenue Playground in Portsmouth with their little boy. As their active toddler scrambled up, down and about, Polselli looked around with a critical mother’s eye. The playground was in bad shape — an accident waiting to happen.

“The second level was literally just holes and gaps,” Polselli said. “It was hard for a one-and-a-half-year-old to play safely.” Polselli told her husband: “This playground stinks. I want a new playground.”

Polselli and fellow Portsmouth mom Kateri Chappell Buerman quickly launched a campaign last winter to rebuild the Turnpike Avenue Playground.

Through a maze of fundraisers, grant applications, and the hunt for sponsors, this formidable pair — doing business as Four Hearts Foundation — is on a mission. Their goal is to raise the estimated $500,000 needed to purchase the playground structures — and the benches, picnic tables, fencing, parking, pavers, and signage as well.

Their plan is to raise that money and break ground by next summer.

Building a Movement

Marco Polselli, a Portsmouth local whose mother taught at Melville School for nearly 30 years, told his wife that that his parents had been involved, back in 1987, in the building of the original wooden playground — a beloved, rambling, Disneyesque design — a fanciful castle built to scale for children. It was a complex of nooks and crannies, covered walkways, ladders, bridges and slides — all perfect for climbing, sliding, a jousting match or two and other flights of fantasy.

Polselli had unwittingly touched upon a local — and family — penchant for community activism. And more specifically, playground activism. Leading her list of possible cohorts was Buerman — a friend who grew up in Portsmouth, where she is now raising two small children, with an energy level Polselli thought would be up to the challenge. Both are like-minded, self-described “nonhovering” moms.

Polselli, who is expecting her second child in August, went home and sent Buerman a text. “I asked, ‘do you want to rebuild the playground with me?’ Kateri jumped right on it,” Polselli says. “She was ready to go.”

Kateri Chappell Buerman, left, with her two sons and Laurel Handel Polselli, right, with her son, are pictured are pictured at the Portsmouth playground off Turnpike Avenue. Photos by Jessica Pohl

“I thought about it every time I was there,” said Buerman. “I always overheard other parents say the same thing, so it was an easy ‘yes’ from me. It was one of those things where you just need two people to want to do it.”

And with that, they were off. Within a week the pair was meeting with Portsmouth Parks and Recreation Director Wendy Bulk, who arranged for a presentation in February to her committee, which in turn led to meeting with Councilwoman Linda Ujifusa — “our saving grace,” according to Buerman.

“The next thing we knew,” Polselli said, “we were all meeting at the playground,” with Ujifusa, Bulk, State Rep. Michelle McGaw, and Public Works Director Brian Woodhead, among others. “We were like, ‘wow!’ They were taking us seriously,” Polselli said. “It was a really good moment.”

Also invited to the walkabout was Megan O’Brien, whose playground design firm O’Brien & Sons came highly recommended. O’Brien took measurements and notes — and told them to spend the winter immersed in playground visits.

“We went to playgrounds throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts,” said Buerman, “and watched what the kids did.”

The two also got a crash course in grassroots fundraising. And, in more ways than one, they made a name for themselves. When talk turned to money, they were advised to apply for 501(c)3 nonprofit status. In March, they submitted the paperwork. Four Hearts Foundation was awarded nonprofit status in early April, and the playground received a unanimous go-ahead from the town council on April 25.

The name, Buerman explained, “for the four little hearts we love so much,” was an obvious choice.

A Playground for all Kids

While it might seem as if the two are tilting at nostalgic windmills, their quest to build this playground is planted in reality. If this was to be a meeting place for children of all ages to experience the joy of play, it had to be designed with the whole community in mind. As children of the 1990s, Buerman and Polselli are raising their own kids in a world that is far more aware of the challenges of mental health in children. Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, depression and anxiety are factors to be dealt with — at both school and at play.

“We started it for our children,” Buerman says, “but we are going to complete it for so many little hearts in our town.”

Laurel Handel Polselli’s son plays on the existing playground structure.

Their vision is not just for all the bells and whistles (minus the wood this time) of slides, tunnels, swings, ladders, chutes, zip lines and hand bikes that factor into O’Brien’s design — but one that is deliberately and enthusiastically all-age and all capable. There are also mommy and me swings and sensory items for the youngest children.

Their goal is to deliver that same magic for the children who come in wheelchairs — and provide a place for those on the autism spectrum or facing other challenges ranging from the physical to the emotional. A key part of their playground research also included sharing their ideas and O’Brien’s drafts to parents of children with challenges.

“I’m truthfully meaning all handicaps,” Buerman said. “Anxiety, depression, Asperger’s. (Children with) spatial awareness. We’ll be covering all the bases.”

“Our idea is to build a playground where children learn about safe independent play time,” Polselli said. “Where kids can climb (around), and where parents don’t have to hover. Otherwise,” she added, “we’d just stay at home.”

Among the mindful features incorporated into O’Briens drawings are those intended to ease anxiety about falling, tripping, or even leaving the ground.

“We have a globe called ‘Global Motion’ with a tier for children to sit in,” Buerman said, “which also has a handicap entrance. We loved how the little kids could grab a seat inside and the big kids spun them or hopped on the outside for a ride. It promotes multi-age play, which we love.”

There are also megaphones, called Talk Tubes, so kids at the top of the structure can communicate with kids at the bottom. It’s no wonder that Buerman likes O’Brien’s drawings — which even include four castle-tops — a reference to the first playground — because they are so similar to the delightful drawings in a Dr. Seuss book.

A rendering of the proposed playground as reimagined by the Four Hearts Foundation.

A Community Catalyst

It has helped that, in such a close-knit community, the 1987 playground had acquired something akin to celebrity status. Like Councilwoman Ujifusa, people who gathered at the early meeting had brought their children there.

Back then, the community rallied with fundraisers, committees, and even a cookbook to raise money for the playground. “It felt like everyone was included,” said Buerman. “People poured their heart and souls into it.”

This time around, Polselli and Buerman have come up with their own Portsmouth Community Playground Playbook 2.0.

“We are hoping the community feels a sense of wanting to be involved,” said Buerman.

Now, the toughest part of job has started — raising the money.

So far, Four Hearts Foundation has held fundraisers at the Common Fence Community Center Playgroup and the Newport Car Museum. They sent applications to the Van Beuren Foundation and the Rhode Island Foundation. One young supporter even set up a lemonade stand and raised $800.

As of early June, they had raised close to $35,000 — from donations large and small. In this project intended for use by the entire community, they emphasize that no donation is too small. “We are chipping away, a dollar at a time,” Buerman said.

But if anyone out there would like to see his or her name at the gate, it would be a done deal for $500,000.

When it was suggested at one point that the word “No” was not in either of their vocabularies, Buerman responded, in a text, “We won’t take no for an answer until we are done! That’s for sure!!!”

The final design of the playground, while close to being complete, is still a work in progress. “We’re always looking at it with fresh eyes,” Buerman said, “still thinking of the next level.”

“I think we ended up with a good one,” Polselli said.

Dr. Seuss would approve.

Kateri Chappell Buerman and one of her sons on a summer afternoon at the Turnpike Avenue Playground.

For more information on how to support
the Portsmouth Playground Project, visit
facebook.com/FourHeartsFoundation4

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