A 'space for healing': Volunteers build playground at DuPage domestic violence shelter

It's obvious that only a kid's imagination helped design this playground.

What adult mind could dream up a bright blue, triple-lane slide so you and your buddies can race from the top to the bottom at the same time?

A little boy wanted that kind of slide for a new playground at the only emergency domestic violence shelter in DuPage County.

And so more than 200 volunteers helped construct it Wednesday, building upon the boy's idea and the hope that domestic violence survivors will find healing here.

Early Wednesday morning, the slides and swing sets had not yet been installed at the site run by Family Shelter Service, a nonprofit group that recently merged into Metropolitan Family Services DuPage.

But volunteer Tameka Haugen already could imagine kids freely, safely and innocently roaming the playground, providing a reprieve for parents who have found the courage to escape their abusers and find refuge at the shelter.

"Who doesn't want to see their kids slide down the slide with joy? And when they've made the decision to come here, that might be something they're sacrificing because they have to," Haugen said. "And now hopefully, we're giving them a little bit back so they can have that moment where they can see their kids smile again."

An HR technology analyst, Haugen and her colleagues from Discover Financial Services Inc. took time off work to help create that sense of normalcy for families trying to recover from the trauma of domestic violence. Roughly 125 employees from the Riverwoods-based firm arrived by the busload, starting the project at 8:30 a.m. and completing their job before 2:30 p.m., with the finishing touches still to come.

It was an exercise in efficiency and teamwork, a scene reminiscent of an old-fashioned barn raising. Company executives didn't sit on the sidelines, but contributed to the heavy lifting.

"There's nothing like sweating together for a good cause," said Discover President and CEO Roger Hochschild, a Metropolitan board member who handled mulch duty.

The nonprofit KaBoom! purchased the playground equipment through a grant, two-thirds of which was covered by Discover and one-third by local supporters. Organizers did not disclose the dollar amount.

"This is a great example of what can happen when a community comes together, where it's a big financial institution like Discover, a national nonprofit like KaBoom!, paired with a local community here in DuPage like Family Shelter Service and Metropolitan. It makes for a beautiful day," Metropolitan CEO Ricardo Estrada said.

The project to replace an aging playground with a one-of-a-kind model was in the works before Family Shelter joined forces with Metropolitan in April. Advocates say the merger will enable them to provide a greater array of services and seamlessly connect families to Metropolitan's mental health care, early childhood education, legal aid and after-school programs at a time of rising demand.

Without enough capacity, Family Shelter had to turn away 1,000 people in the first six months of this fiscal year. Typically, advocates serve close to 2,000 clients a year.

"We think that combined we cannot only respond to the current need but the future need, and it's unfortunate that in DuPage County we're seeing more and more domestic violence," Estrada said.

With the two long-standing organizations coming together, Estrada said advocates want to add another domestic violence shelter site in the near future.

"In order to build a new shelter, we would have to launch a capital campaign, so we will when we're ready," he said. "The organization is going to embark on strategic planning early next year, and I would predict that would be a priority for us moving forward."

KaBoom! Project Manager Sarah Branoff visited the existing shelter about two months ago to have kids "draw their dream playground." The younger clients asked for "lots of slides and swings."

"We are not only building a really fun and playful space for our kids and our families to interact," said Alexandra Milkent, the children's program supervisor at the shelter. "This is also a space for healing."

Advocates use the playground for individual counseling so children can open up beyond a clinical setting and feel like a kid again - "a safe child again," Estrada said.

"If there's a way, too, that this organization can use the playground to break through to children, that's amazing," said Haugen, the volunteer from Discover. "Sign us up every time."

Two strong charities merge

  Roger Hochschild, CEO of Discover Financial Services Inc., and Bogdan Ortega, right, a volunteer from Chamberlain Group, pour mulch Wednesday for a new playground at DuPage County's only emergency domestic violence shelter. Bev Horne/
  Judy McGhee, a volunteer from Chamberlain Group, and Richard Estrada, right, CEO of Metropolitan Family Services, help build a playground domestic violence survivors and their families. Bev Horne/
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