1,500 to help build play areas

LAWRENCEVILLE - This week, more than 1,500 volunteers from across Gwinnett and metro Atlanta are giving their time and energy to help build playgrounds for young kids.

Tuesday was the first day of the community build for the newly constructed D. Scott Hudgens Jr. Early Education Center. The extensive project has turned into one of the largest volunteer efforts in Gwinnett County, with people of all ages spending hours shoveling, cutting and measuring.

Mary Beth Byerly, the executive director for institutional advancement, said the organizers had been planning the build for many months, and it was wonderful to finally see it all come together.

"This whole project had been pretty much about education in general," she said. "All of these companies and individuals really care about education, and they know this is a good way for them to show that."

Together, the volunteers are giving more than $100,000 worth of manhours to building the outdoor playgrounds for toddlers and pre-K students. They will serve as play spaces for the 220 children who enroll in the new 26,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art early education center at Gwinnett Technical College.

The goal is for the playgrounds to not only be functional, but artistic and distinct. The new building will also have one or more large murals painted on the walls. Ann Odum, a local artist and member of the college's board, will be designing them with a nature theme.

"We don't know exactly what it will look like yet, but we think it would be a landscape with animals," Odum said. "I think it will be great for them."

Plenty of food and refreshments helped the volunteers keep cool and alert as they worked on shoveling, cutting or preparing the wood. Several local restaurants, including Taco Bell, KFC, Sonic and Carrabba's, are donating lunch or dinner for the 100 or so volunteers that work each shift. More than 30 businesses are contributing to the effort.

Volunteer Barbara Wheeler was handing cups of water outside to the other workers. She works at the new Knowledge Points tutoring center in Lawrenceville.

"Rather than just being a business in education, we wanted to give back to community, and this is a great way to do that," Wheeler said.

The build also attracted a few local celebrities, including Brian Finneran of the Atlanta Falcons, who was one of the volunteers on Tuesday.

Despite the success of the project, there are still about 100 more volunteers needed to finish the construction in time, according to Lorri Christopher, institutional advancement officer for the Gwinnett Tech Foundation. She is continuing to sign up more volunteers until Saturday at 2 p.m., when the playgrounds are expected to be completed.

"I'll work night and day to get 'em," Christopher said. "We're going to have these wonderful playgrounds."