August 21, 2018

North Country union volunteers to save a playground, bringing new meaning to the 'summer slide'

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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People Project
Caption: Unionists from local teachers unions, highway departments, corrections officers (NYSCOBA) and electricians (IBEW) were among those who showed up to dig, fit, attach and plant equipment. Photo provided.

What makes up a beach?

Sand, water, splashing, swimming — and sometimes, union volunteers who eschew flip-flops for work boots.

Not your typical beach scene, right? But that was exactly the scene Friday through Monday at Lisbon’s community beach on the St. Lawrence River, where volunteers from at least eight different unions gathered to construct a desperately needed playground purchased with funds from a NYSUT Solidarity grant through The People Project.

Unionists from local teachers unions, highway departments, corrections officers (NYSCOBA) and electricians (IBEW) were among those who showed up to dig, fit, attach and plant equipment. School administrators also joined the work crew. Dave Bishop Construction donated heavy equipment and did excavating, and food was donated for a cookout lunch.

“It was beyond believable,” said Julie Rexford, a member of the Lisbon Teachers Association who applied for the project grant. “It was beyond my expectations.” Even after hitting bedrock in a few spots and having to shorten some of the equipment, the work went forward.

Erin Covell, director of The People Project, said volunteers came from Lisbon, Morristown, Heuvelton, Canton, Massena and Ogdensburg local teachers’ and non-instructional support-staff unions.

“I can’t say enough about the teachers and their hard work,” said Mike O’Neil, director of the beach and 100-site campground on the property. “The playground is used right through until we close in mid-October.”

But last year, there was no playground after it was condemned by the company that insures the property, leaving kids from the many surrounding communities who use this “jewel” of a beach and campground without a place to slide and swing.

The new one built by volunteers now boasts colorful equipment that’s made in the USA, and includes lime green slides and rainbow-colored climbing arches, swings and stairs.

Rexford, who teaches high school English and is a resident of Lisbon, found out about the condemned playground last summer, after she successfully applied for a grant from the People Project to reinstate a swim program at the popular beach. She was one of many teacher volunteers who helped run the program last summer, coordinating buses and planting her feet in the sand. The scenic beach is on a wide swatch of the river, and is not supported by taxpayer money, she said.

“Really, honestly, this is the jewel of Lisbon. It’s a real community gathering place,” said Rexford, adding that kids and families come from many surrounding towns, including Canton, Ogdensburg, and Heuvelton.

“It’s just another example of how labor unions in the North Country understand the value of unionism and how they support community,” said Covell, who is also president of the Massena Federation of Teachers. She said the $44,000 grant was the largest one that the People Project has awarded.

Rexford said applying for the union grant was challenging, since it had to involve different unions and community groups, illustrate how it would help students, engage union members, and involve the school and community working together. But, she said, the challenge was worth it.

“The best part about it was spending time there and understanding how important it was. It was so exciting,” said Covell, noting that kids hung out wanting to help and learned about unionism in action.

The next time an educator refers to the “summer slide” that some students experience when school’s out, you can point them to Lisbon Beach.

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