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Kids Save Fairlawn hoop court

Waterbury Republican-American, Wednesday, October 5, 2005
by Joe Palladino

They saved the basketball court at Fairlawn Park Tuesday night. Perhaps they did even more. The tiny little park on the corner of Homestead and Woodbine was embroiled in controversy when $250,000 in grant money became available to renovate the grounds. Area residents, annoyed by the litter and vandalism, suggested that the basketball court attracted a criminal element. They wanted the court out of the re-design.

That brought Waterbury attorney Joe Summa into the fray. Summa, a member of the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, grew up in Fairlawn. He likes to say he grew up on that court. He still goes back from time to time to play some hoops with the area kids. When he suggested that they should take an active role in cleaning the place up, they said it is pointless.

"They are taking our court away."

So Summa got them organized. "If you do the heavy lifting, I will help you," he said.

By unanimous vote Tuesday, the Park Board voted to keep a basketball court as part of the permanent plans for Fairlawn.

But these kids, guided by Summa, gave the city something more than a way to save one court. To demonstrate their commitment to the park, Summa made them sign a pledge to clean up both litter and the language. He brought in the community police officer, Joe Padua, to talk to the kids. He signed up firefighters at nearby Engine 5 to the Fairlawn Park Basketball Association, and he drew in sponsors who pledged financial support to supplement city resources.

Even Waterbury Police Superintendent Neil O'Leary came to the Park Board meeting Tuesday night to endorse saving the court.

"What is going on in that park should set an example to the rest of the city," O'Leary said.

And what is that example? Rather than wait for someone to fix a problem, fix it yourself. Summa got the kids fired up, and the kids saved the park. They bravely tell kids who are older and bigger to pick up their trash, and when kids come to the park from outside the neighborhood, they are asked to clean up the language.

Now, they don't just play at the park, they feel like they own it.

Jermaine Simpson, 12, told the Park Board Tuesday, "I have a lot of growing up to do and I don't want to grow up in an environment that's bad." Then he eyeballed board members and said, "You guys can help us make it better, and I guarantee we'll keep it better."

Mark Ward, a member of Crosby High basketball team, said he had sweaty palms when he rose to speak, like taking a foul shot in a close game, but speak he did. Wayne Simpson, 15, didn't speak, but he admitted after, "We all felt like we were part of the political process."

Gary Madison, 15, also a Crosby High player, said it best: "I think we helped people realize that you can make your neighborhood a better place."

Go ahead, drive by the park today and see if there is any trash on the ground. There isn't, and there hasn't been since the Association was established.

The Fairlawn Basketball Association will keep its court, but they'd also like a new water fountain, fitness stations, relocating the play area so thugs can't hide in dark corners, and they might even add a web cam, on the Association website, so parents can monitor kids, or kids can log on and see if a basketball game is about to break out.

Do you live near a city park? Do you like what you see going on in that park? Do you wonder when the city is going to do something about it? A bunch of kids from Fairlawn stopped waiting and cleaned up the park themselves. What are you going to do in your neighborhood?

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