New Duluth school playground springs from ashes

Three weeks after fire damaged the new Lester Park School playground beyond repair, a new playground started to take shape on Saturday. A mostly volunteer crew assembled playground parts and worked the ground with shovels. The hope was to complet...

Rebuilding playground
Parent volunteers Jason Frantz (left), Ben Helgeson (on ground) and Peter Johnson work together to bolt a section of the new slide together at the Lester Park School playground Saturday morning. (Bob King /

Three weeks after fire damaged the new Lester Park School playground beyond repair, a new playground started to take shape on Saturday.

A mostly volunteer crew assembled playground parts and worked the ground with shovels. The hope was to complete the playground on Saturday so the school's children would be sliding, climbing and crawling on new structures by Monday.

The plans went slightly awry, said Tom Kasper, a School Board member who organized the project in his role as supervisor of street and park maintenance for the city. Concrete from the original playground had to be removed on Saturday before work began. "We were completely surprised that it was still there this morning," Kasper said.

That put the work a couple of hours behind, meaning it probably won't be finished until sometime this week, Kasper said. "I'm hoping that by Monday we're to the point where we need four volunteers, and I can round up people to spend part of the day Monday."

About 30 volunteers showed up on Saturday, supplemented by one paid city employee and three people from the playground company. The volunteers included parents and teachers from the school, members of Anchor Point Community Church and at least two other School Board members, Ann Wasson and Judy Seliga Punyko.


The volunteers will produce a cost savings for the school system, said Bonnie Wolden, Lester Park School principal. It cost about $147,000 to replace the playground, most of which was covered by insurance, she said. The deductible was about $25,000.

"But the labor that the volunteers are providing today ... would almost make up for the deductible," Wolden said.

It doesn't end there. Nicole Polchow, Lester Park PTA president, said children, parents and PTAs from other schools donated money for the playground. That means Lester Park School will have money left add to its playground. Polchow and Wolden both talked about adding equipment that would be entirely accessible to children who use leg braces or wheelchairs.

Two 14-year-olds have been charged with felony negligent fire and 5th degree misdemeanor arson in connection with the Oct. 1 fire, said Charles Schumacher of the St. Louis County Attorney's Office. No court date has been set. No other information could be released because the accused are juveniles.

That's fine with Kristi Fischer, one of the volunteers, whose four children include a fifth-grader and a third-grader at Lester Park School. She said her older children thought the miscreants' names would be common knowledge in middle school by the next Monday, but they weren't. "I'm glad that people have kept the names as quiet as they have," she said.

Fischer made a major contribution to the volunteer effort, which began at 8:30 a.m., by providing coffee. Folks from Anchor Point Church, which is a few blocks from the school, provided chili with fixings, cornbread, cookies, brownies and sodas.

Serving from three large kettles of chili (hot, medium and vegetarian), church member Scott Rocheleau said some of Anchor Point's men gave up a touch football game to help out. "They thought this was better, serving the community and serving God," he said.

People in the community were stunned that someone would set fire to a playground, Wolden said. Grant Desroches of Flagship, the distributor for Landscape Structures, the Delano, Minn., company that provided the equipment, said it's not that unusual.


"It happens more often than you think," Desroches said. "Last year there were four: Sartell; where I live in Plymouth had one burn; Blaine; and St. Paul had one."

The new playground might be more meaningful to people than the original, Deroches said.

"It reminds me of the old barn-raisings," he said. "It really brings the community together. And you know when it's all done and the kids are playing on it, it's a very satisfying feeling."

Kasper echoed that.

"This is really what creates long-lasting relationships and long-lasting opportunities and connections," Kasper said. "And these people for the next 25 years are going to drive by this playground and say, 'I helped build that. I turned that bolt.' "

Father, son help rebuild playground
Pat O'Connell gets help from his son Kellen O'Connell, 6, reconstructing the burned playground at Lester Park School on Saturday afternoon. Kellen goes to kindergarten there and wanted to help out. (Bob King /

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