Building a new play structure is a significant undertaking. But it doesn’t have to be limited to schools that can organize an army of volunteer help. At the Wyman School, a K-5 public school in Woburn, Mass., one parent took the lead. Teresa Manzi and a handful of other moms and dads accomplished the goal of creating a safe and fun place for their children to play. This is Teresa's story.

“I live in the neighborhood of the Wyman School and knew even before my twin daughters were of school age that the play structure needed to be replaced. A certified playground inspector evaluated the 13-year-old structure and found splintered wood, protruding bolts and nail heads, head entrapment risks, inappropriate surfacing, broken and missing parts, and falling hazards due to the structure’s height.

“The summer before my daughters entered kindergarten, I began making a list of playground equipment companies in the area and even started to raise funds before school had begun. Although I didn’t have any official OK, I was sure no one would oppose the project. I called local businesses, asking them to help out. I received $300 in checks made out to the Wyman School for the play structure.

“I knew that the first school PTO meeting in September would be the place to ask about funds for a new playground and to see how people felt about starting a committee. I was told that there were no current plans for the playground and I should ‘go for it.’ A few days later, I got phone calls from seven parents who were active in the PTO and wanted to help to make this project come alive.”

The Playground Committee

“The nine members of the playground committee, three couples, a mom, my husband, and I, held our first meeting in late October. Everyone came with ideas, plans, and energy. We decided that our fundraising efforts would be divided into four lines: traditional fundraisers, sales of engraved bricks, corporate donations, and grant applications.

“Each of the committee members had different strengths and talents. This enabled us to create a realistic business plan, network with other successful playground groups, and approach our donors in a professional manner.

“We divided into small groups to write letters, make lists of potential corporate sponsors, create a mail-merge, meet with playground vendors, and write grant proposals. We all wore many hats during the project, working together to earn the money.

“I worked on corporate fundraising, donations, and grant research. Kathie Collins joined me on grant research and grant writing. She also researched and coordinated the playground equipment along with Sandy Doherty, a team member who spent a lot of time on donations. Others worked on preparing the grounds for construction, developing the engraved bricks project, corporate fundraising, and finding donations. We also appointed a treasurer, and the four men in the group organized construction.

“At this early stage of the planning, with the cost of the project estimated to be approximately $50,000, we were advised by a member of the school committee (who had worked with other area schools building play structures) to become a separate committee from the school’s PTO. Becoming a separate committee would help keep the playground funds separate from the general PTO funds. We would not drain their operating budget with playground expenses, and our donations would be earmarked just for their intended purpose.

“We split off, and each of us became officers with titles. We didn’t stop going to PTO meetings—the PTO is for the children, and we wanted to be included in regular PTO issues. We also made a playground committee presentation at each PTO meeting. During our months of planning, we always kept the parent group, the principal, and our school committee up to date with the project.”

Raising the Funds

“Grant applications were among the first things the playground committee focused on. Groups that give grants to projects like ours often have their own time frame, and we wanted to get on their agendas as soon as possible. On, we found listings of grants offered by large corporations. You don’t always fit into the criteria, but Kathie Collins and I analyzed which categories we fell into and sent out charitable grant applications. Because grants take a lot of time, we didn’t expect to hear back from the companies quickly and planned to move ahead without grant money.

“For the next stage of fundraising, we decided to sell engraved bricks to the school families and make a walkway near the playground. We started selling the bricks at our kickoff meeting in January 2002. Our principal, city officials, and school department members attended, but we unfortunately had very few parents there. This was one of the first signs that we did not have the support of the school families like we thought we would. The school had raised money for a new playground in years past, but it never came to be. We think this made parents wary (and weary) of more involvement. We stayed optimistic, and brick orders came in slowly. We sold 96 bricks, raising about $600.

“In February we reported to our PTO that we had chosen a vendor and that our corporate fundraising would start on March 15. We also told the PTO that we had given a refundable $500 deposit to the vendor to hold a build date for July. The deposit was a clear sign that we would be replacing the current structure. Because we had formed a separate group to work on the play structure and did not have to clear the deposit with the main PTO, the project received criticism. Not daunted by the problems and lack of popular support, we continued as a group of nine.

“Our corporate donations started off well, and we were hopeful. Group members wrote two corporate letters: one aimed at large businesses, one at small businesses. We sent them to every company in the area. We waited two weeks and then made countless follow-up phone calls. To do this, we basically divided the phone book among us; one person took all of the dentists and printing companies, another took grocery stores, and so on. We got a lot of monetary donations this way. The letter writing and phone calls also served to get the word out about the play structure. Throughout the project we received donations of supplies and food (particularly for the playground installation day) that really helped us out.

“Early in the process, we sent letters to everyone we thought should know about the project, including the mayor, who happened to be an alum of the elementary school. We met with the mayor, and he put us in touch with two lawyers who later got us two large donations: $5,000 from Stop & Shop supermarkets and $5,800 from the local Lowe’s home improvement store and its corporate parent, Lowe’s Companies.

“For traditional fundraising, we held a fundraiser featuring a disk jockey and raffle. We also had a Mother’s Day flower sale through the school. We advertised each of these fundraisers in the local paper; the paper runs free advertisements for anything school-related. We also used this forum to make play structure announcements and to thank donors.

“With the countless phone calls, two fundraisers, and the two large donations, we raised $25,000 in 90 days. Having reached half of our goal, we decided to purchase half of the planned playground. Because our committee had faced criticism in the community and questions about our operating outside the main PTO, we felt like we had something to prove. Furthermore, we didn’t want the money sitting in the account ‘on hold’ indefinitely; we wanted something to show for our hard work and something our donors could identify as the result of their support.”


“We met with the vendor and he totally supported the idea of building half now, half later. Our original playground plan called for a large area filled with lower pieces, such as monorails, balance beams, a variety of traditional swings, a tire swing, a large climbing structure, and a slide. The plan also called for two tall towers that cost $12,000 each. We put the towers on hold for phase two and went ahead with the plans for phase one. It felt great. We had worked so hard for many months.

“Before our build days in July, the city’s department of public works came through, working nonstop for two weeks to prepare the site. They needed to take down the old structure and prepare the area by digging down to put in the ‘wood carpet,’ which creates a soft surface.

“Our build days in July were amazing. We advertised for volunteers in the paper, and they came from all over the city. Some people were parents, others neighbors and business owners—volunteers we didn’t even know. The chief of police came, as did the mayor. Everyone had to work incredibly hard.

“We had 20 volunteers for Friday’s preassembly. On Saturday, the main work day, we had 52 volunteers. Local companies donated food, drinks, and desserts. The committee purchased T-shirts with our own money to give to the volunteers. At times I didn’t think we’d get it done. Steve Dibble, of Dr. Play Associates, the on-site supervisor, was very calm. If something was put together wrong, he had us just take it apart and put it together right. We ran into a lot of rocks, so we were an hour and a half behind schedule. I didn’t think we’d finish, but Steve was a great cheerleader. We finished that day.

“We worked hard and had a lot of fun. In the end, nine parents came together for one reason: to build a new, safe play structure for our school and our community. We formed friendships and learned good lessons. We will work together for phase two of the playground project with continued energy and the spirit that brought us through this wonderful project.

“As a member of the playground committee and as the new president of the PTO, I am looking forward to phase two. We will be looking for funding from the grants we applied for last year. We’ll also be enjoying renewed support from the school and the community. We’ve already had many inquiries from parents and neighbors about how to purchase more engraved bricks!”