By Curt Yeomans
Keith Brooking developed a love for playing outdoors before the age of 6, when he first took to a football field.
The Atlanta Falcons' linebacker often played outside, and his favorite thing to do on the local playgrounds in Senoia was to climb on things. The monkey bars, the slides, the trees. If it could be climbed, Brooking wanted to be king of it.
"Our [Brooking and his siblings] thing was we built tree huts," Brooking said. "We'd climb up into our tree huts and have adventures. That's probably where my love for climbing things came from."
Brooking was one of two Atlanta Falcons players (linebacker Coy Wire was the other), and more than 200 volunteers, who on Tuesday, helped build a playground for the students at Lewis Academy of Excellence in Riverdale.
In addition to slides, swings, a bridge and a climbing wall, the school got a new outdoor classroom and benches for teachers, parents and students to sit on by the playground. "I like to swing on the swings, because I like to feel the wind blowing through my hair," said Aryana Jenkins, 10, a fifth-grader at Lewis Academy -- and a fan of the Falcons. "I'm really glad we're getting this playground."
For the students at Lewis Academy, this will be the first playground they have had access to during school hours. They did not have a playground available to them when the four-year-old school was located at Riverdale First United Methodist Church, from 2005-2007.
When the school moved into Woodward Academy's old Busey Campus last year, the only playground equipment was a swing set and an outdoor basketball court.
To get the playground built, the school partnered with the Falcons, Home Depot and KaBoom!, a nonprofit company which helps build new playgrounds for children, who either did not have safe playground equipment, or any at all.
There were 160 volunteers from Home Depot, and more than 50 parents and teachers from Lewis Academy also volunteered.
"We've been planning this for about two months," said Nora Donaldson, the project manager from KaBoom! "We had a design day at that time where I came out and met with adults, and the students to see what they wanted this playground to have. The kids drew their dream playgrounds for me, and they had a couple of interesting ideas like being able to climb in a person's mouth and then sliding down a tongue."
Lewis Academy has 500 students enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade. "This gives the kids a safe and beautiful place to play," said Patricia Lewis, the school's founder. "We're very pleased to have wonderful role models [like Brooking]. It gives the students hope that they can be anything they want to be, or accomplish anything they want to accomplish."
Brooking said it is important to have playgrounds available to children so they can have a place to be active, rather than sitting at home, playing video games. "Obesity is such a growing problem in this country," he said. "When I was a kid, all we had was an Atari. Now, kids have a lot of things, like cable TV or the internet, that can distract them from being active."
The father of a young son, Logan, 2, Brooking wants his son to be as active as he can be as he grows up. "The more we encourage them, as parents, to stay active outside, the better off they'll be," he said.
One of the things Brooking, an 11-year National Football League veteran, did at the playground build was to help erect a small climbing wall for the students. This way, they too could grow to love climbing all over things. After Brooking helped put the wall in place and checked its sturdiness, he offered admiration for the new red-and-black, football-themed playground that was being built.
"This playground will have a positive impact on many children for a long time to come," said Brooking. "It's great to see the community come together for this."
However, he could not stop gushing about the climbing wall. "We didn't have the climbing wall when I was that age, so these kids are pretty lucky," he said. "That's a pretty cool thing to have on a playground."