Atlanta springtime allows for park therapy

Atlanta’s parks aren’t just pretty pieces of land, at least not this time of year. From Rockdale to Rockmart, Lawrenceville to Carrollton, there’s something special about springtime in metro Atlanta.

Especially this spring, after the long, dank winter of discontent on so many fronts, parks transform into giant, outdoor therapy stages for those with tired brains, drained emotions and fried nerves.

“A little of all of that,” said Galama Zezetko, who was walking the trails of East Cobb Park with her mother, Duciy Zezetko. “I just like to be outside and seeing other people outside, instead of just seeing cars. It’s important for me to see other people like this.”

Except for a freak twisted ankle, no one leaves a park feeling worse than when they got there. Never do you hear, "Man, I wish I had done something else instead."

And on a spring Saturday, a park can be sprawling green space, like Piedmont Park, or a quaint suburban one like East Cobb Park. Or it can be one of the countless baseball, softball or lacrosse parks, where thousands of parents and neighbors gather to watch kids play kids’ games.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the sounds of a park -- children laughing, joggers listening to music loud enough to escape the ear buds, the constant murmuring of conversation -- were that of happiness. Sometimes, a day at the park is just a much-needed escape.

Sydney Webster, 14, and four of her friends were lying on a blanket, enjoying a picnic. For Sydney, the park offered a chance to exhale. She was still sporting two bandages on either side of her spine, near her waist, reminders of the gift she had offered her sick brother just two days earlier.

“I had a pretty stressful week,” she said. “I gave my brother bone marrow this week. He has a rare blood disease that was diagnosed two years ago. I’m a 100 percent match, and they say if his body accepts it, he’ll be cured. It still hurts a little, but it’s his cure. I was glad to get it over because there was some stress leading up to it.”

Eka Mennenoh, 15, one of Sydney’s friends, also had war wounds to show off.

“I broke my hand playing tennis against Centennial,” the Lassiter High School student said. “I can barely write, and when I go to my tennis matches and have to watch, it makes me mad. So I needed to come relax, too.”

No more than a couple of hundred feet away, Mike Rogers was kicking a soccer ball with his son. Nothing screamed normal more than seeing father and son enjoying each other in such a Rockwell-esque manner.

But there’s always more. Everyone here has a story.

“This is what I do,” said Rogers, father of three, including twin 4-year-olds. “I’m a stay-at-home dad, so this is kind of business for me. My sons have sensory process disorder, meaning their senses need to be woken up and they need stimulation and motor skill activities. So we come here a few times a week. It’s great to be at this park where they can yell and scream and that doesn’t get in the way of anything. Elsewhere, it does."

It can be tough when the weather doesn’t permit outdoor time, Rogers said.

“It’s a nightmare if we can't do this,” he said. “We love the park.”

Within shouting distance, Greg Roy of Birmingham was celebrating his daughter’s eighth birthday.

He makes the two-hour drive to Atlanta to see Allison several times a month. Living in separate homes, in different cities, is tough on any parent and child, but the combination of a pretty park and a sunny sky can make the time together even more joyful.

“For us, this is a place to get away and spend quality time together,” he said. “We usually will play on the playground a few minutes, then have a picnic, then go on a hike by the creek. That’s a good time for us to talk about life, one on one. The park seems to open us both up, and it feels like a safe place to talk.”

For many, parks like this are the perfect way to spend a spring Saturday. For Mike Russell, the perfect place was another park, in the northern part of Cobb County -- the ballpark at Allatoona High.

No more than an hour after Allison Roy’s birthday party, and Sydney decompressing with her friends, and Rogers’ soccer game with his sons, Holden Russell was making his high school debut as a Kennesaw Mountain High School pitcher.

The JV double-header started at 1. It was a little after 4 before Holden finally took the mound. That left a lot of time for Mike Russell to anxiously wait.

The Russells, like everyone else, have a story.

Holden, 14, had a cancerous tumor on his brain behind his right eye when he was 4. Through various forms of treatment and surgery, Holden has been cancer-free for 10 years, but he’s legally blind in that eye.

So Mike Russell wasn’t sure he’d even witness this moment -- his boy mowing down batters on his own field of dreams. Holden’s sister, Haley, 17, is a student manager with the varsity team, which played at Wheeler High School on that Saturday. Had Holden pitched earlier, she wouldn’t have seen it.

But she got there just in time.

“I’m going to stand on the bleachers and yell for him,” she said.

“No, you are not,” Dad said.

Haley and Holden get along better than most sisters and brothers do. He comes to her softball games, and she comes to his baseball games. The ballparks are where the whole family is most at home.

“I’m so proud of him,” Mike Russell said. “He’s worked so hard and overcome so much to be here. And he’s pretty doggone good.”

Indeed he was. His pitches had good movement, and he painted the corners of the plate like Tom Glavine used to. His team lost both games. His stat line: four innings, three strikeouts and two earned runs.

“Not a bad way to spend a day,” Mike Russell said.

That seemed to be the consensus of just about everyone who spent their day at the parks.