A controversy regarding the rights to use a park in Statesboro’s Whitesville Community was, at least temporarily, settled earlier this week by a pair of bolt cutters.
Children lined the chain-link fence, eager for a ride on the swing-set, as a group of Whitesville residents manually removed a steel lock Monday barring them from the community playground and green space.
The move to reopen the park, which has been closed to the public for more than one year, was done without the consent of the Whitesville Community Residential Development Organization, which continuously has cited safety hazards for sealing the area.
“The park has been, ever since last summer, left alone and locked,” said Carrie Howard, president of the Board of Directors for the volunteer organization – the group is entrusted with overseeing the management of the park. “The building has to have maintenance done on it, as well as the playground. Until the maintenance is done, we wanted no child at the park.”
Before reopening the field, board directors hoped to replace a broken window and repair issues with a bathroom – broken faucet and inoperable toilet – in a community building set aside from the playground.
Residents lose patience
Residents angered by a lack of progress and spurred by a desire to see children play somewhere other than community streets, took matters into their own hands.
“That bathroom has been messed up for more than 10 years; only one works and the kids all use it,” said Teresa Jackson, a resident of the community. “If the children really wanted to – the kids all live right here in the area – they could run home to use the bathroom.”
“Right now, the kids are playing in the middle of the streets, about to be run over. We don’t want the children in danger, and they have no where else to go,” she said. “I do not want to see these kids deprived of something they should have access to. Our parents came together and made this park for the community – for the kids to have somewhere to go. For the board to tell this community that we can no longer have this park because they say so, cuts deep.”
Residents, who believe the safety hazards are of little concern, presented the board with a petition of more than 60 signatures and attended a community meeting two weeks ago to voice their dissatisfaction.
“We tried to go the right way,” said Jackson. “But [the board] would not hear us. [Howard] was irate. She raised sand and was cursing.”
“The board members aren’t out here to see how it hurts the children,” she said. “For someone to cut them off is not right.”
Board sees danger
Still, board members assert that the danger is too great to support the park’s opening.
“I am always concerned about the children. I’m concerned about every citizen in this community,” said Howard. “If a child gets hurt because the toilet is not fixed, it will not be our fault because we tried to prevent the children from such. We tried to use protective measures.”
“That park would save no child from being in the road. Parents are responsible for children being in the street and running in the street,” she said. “It is not the park being closed that causes children to be playing in the street. The Whitesville Park is not the only one in Statesboro. Everyone out there has automobiles. If parents cared enough, they could take the kids to Mill Creek, Blitch Street or Grady Street parks. There are many places to play around here.”
Despite the asserted risks associated with the facility, the Whitesville Residential Development Organization hosted a summer enrichment camp at the park earlier this year. The gate was opened during the camp, and locked once again at the end of each day.
According to Howard, park conditions then were, at least, satisfactory.
“The park was fixed to the point to where we could maintain our program, but there is still a lot to be done,” she said.
“If it was good enough for the program, I think it is good enough for our kids,” said Jackson.
Since the conclusion of the summer camp, residents were allowed to access the park by contacting a board member for a key to the lock and providing supervision while children played, said Howard.
Though, according to residents, the opportunity was not afforded them.
Citizens offer solutions
Monday, after removal of the lock and while children once again played within the park’s confines, citizens gathered in the community building where board members were attending a scheduled meeting.
Residents spoke to Howard, seeking a solution to the park’s maintenance issues.
“We have skilled people in our community. We can come together, volunteer our time and pay to have things fixed so kids can come and utilize the park,” said Denice Lewis, who, along with her husband, Jeff, lead Birth of the Harvest Ministries in Whitesville.
“You all have moved the community and they are ready to take on responsibility,” said Jeff Lewis. “I think it would be good if the board would take that into consideration.”
“No chain should be on this gate,” said James Brack, who was raised in Whitesville. “We could all pitch in and fix the problems with the bathroom. We have three or four plumbers that live out here.”
Howard said it was the first time she had heard such an offer.
“The Whitesville community always tried to involve the people to get busy and help with whatever they see wrong with the park and building,” she said. “We’ve always encouraged people to take part in the community. Only a few people would ever help.”
“To be able to mess with that water system, and fix the bathroom, I guess they know we have to meet a city code,” said Howard. “People are saying a lot, but they don’t know a lot. They may have good intentions, but good intentions can land them in a lot of trouble.”
According to the president, there is no timetable for repairs. The organization, which operates as a 501(c) non-profit group, can only begin making repairs once it has enough funds, she said.
“Whenever we can get it fixed, that is when it will be fixed,” said Howard.
Currently, the board has yet to decide whether to again lock up the more than 20-year-old park.
Jeff Harrison can be reached at (912) 489-9454.