Putting a Bow on It
Partners and community members in front of mural

Celebrants in front of new mural at Chiloquin Green Schoolyard. Photo by Spayne Martinez.

Putting a Bow on It

Celebrating Oregon’s first rural green schoolyard

By Barton Robison

 

A few weeks ago, I packed up my husband, a colleague, and an absurdly large pair of novelty scissors and headed for Chiloquin, Oregon. After three long years of planning, workshops, meetings, fundraising, tears, joy, surprise, and bewilderment, we were finally ready for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Chiloquin Elementary Green Schoolyard.

Folks from all over the state and region joined the dozens of local partners to celebrate this unique community, the Klamath Tribes’ Restoration, and the hard work that went into constructing a brand new green schoolyard at Chiloquin Elementary School. There you’ll find new play equipment and a massive pole barn where kids can shoot hoops through rain, shine, or even snow! What was once an empty grass field is now filled with outdoor learning spaces and interpretive trails with signs in the Klamath language. And in a few months, seeds of native meadow grass and more than 30 trees will be planted to soak up the winter rains and provide habitat for local wildlife.

This ribbon-cutting was the day we’d been working towards for three years, and it was completely overwhelming.

When we began this journey, no one could have imagined the obstacles the community would face. Just days after we presented to the Klamath County School Board and got their blessing to continue planning, Oregon shut down in-person learning due to the then-emergent COVID-19 virus. A few months later, Chiloquin was rocked by the 242 Fire, which burned close to 15,000 acres right outside of town. The next year, the Bootleg Fire, a stone’s throw to the east, became the third-largest wildfire in Oregon history.

Young child on playground

Student playing on new equipment at Chiloquin Green Schoolyard. Photo by Spayne Martinez.

Miraculously, despite the aforementioned catastrophes and other personal setbacks our partners faced, the project remained on schedule. For me and others, the schoolyard became a place of respite and healing, even when it was simply a design on a piece of paper. When the world outside felt like it was closing in (or falling apart), we had each other to hold onto, and we had a vision to actualize. Committing to Chiloquin’s children and investing in the future was a way to practice manifesting hope in our lives.

This collaborative hope brought in a constellation of partners and supporters unlike anything I’ve been a part of. We had hundreds of local community members make small donations to support the project. Dozens of state and national donors lined up to help fund the $1.4 million needed for capital construction. And no matter their personal challenges or what curveballs the universe seemed to throw our way, our core team of local partners and advocates were always there to give their time, expertise, and hearts to the project. Everyone needed something to hope for during the last few years, and as of a couple weeks ago, our monument to that hope is now the backdrop to recess games, outdoor learning, and walking paths for mindful engagement with nature.

Celebrants at Chiloquin Green Schoolyard ribbon-cutting. Photo by Spayne Martinez.

Seeing the sea of faces at the ribbon-cutting ceremony was an overwhelming reminder of the power of hope and the power of people coming together to make their communities a better place. It was a reminder of the power of self-determination and the importance of community-driven processes.

And, for me, it was a reminder of why I do this work.

Even though our project in Chiloquin is nearing its close, our commitment to helping rural communities access safe, healthy spaces to recreate is ramping up. We’re thrilled to announce that, with the generous support of the Roundhouse Foundation, we’re partnering with the Trust for Public Land on three more rural community schoolyards over the next couple of years. What began as an experiment in Chiloquin has turned into a fully-fledged statewide initiative. Our hope is that we can support the development of a sustainable model, that the Trust for Public Land can take it nationwide, to ensure that no matter how many people live in a community, their kids can access the health benefits of an engaging, nature-based play space.

After we’d packed up our car and hugged our goodbyes, I took a final lap around the school to see the loading zone where kids used to play basketball. There is a faded US map that has cracked through due to years of weather that has slowly split up the asphalt. Propane tanks and dumpsters that were once in the middle of the recess area now sit in silence, content to serve as necessary infrastructure instead of play impediments. On my first trip out to Chiloquin Elementary in 2019, when I got to see the kids in action at recess, about half of them were sitting on the curb, waiting until it was time to go back inside.

To me, that space behind the school is just as precious a symbol as the new schoolyard. It’s a reminder that there’s still work to be done, and that progress is reachable if we work together. It’s a reminder that while there’s plenty in the world to shudder about, there’s plenty more to celebrate and cherish and hold close to our hearts.

Put simply, it’s a reminder of hope.

Barton Robison knows firsthand the healing powers of nature and is passionate about removing access barriers so that all Oregonians can know the benefits of time in green space. He leads Willamette Partnership’s work on the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative, and his strengths include facilitation, strategy development, and communications.

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