Kids skip coming-of-age celebrations to help others

CHICAGO — When North Side Lakeview neighborhood youths Ariana Handelman and Marc Luban have their bat and bar mitzvahs this fall and turn 13, they won’t celebrate with an extravagant party at a hotel or country club.

Instead, Ariana and Marc are building a playground next to Bright Star Church in the Bronzeville neighborhood south of downtown.

“We came up with the idea of not having a party with a DJ because that only lasts for one day. We wanted to make something last for a long time,” Marc said. “(In Lakeview) we have playgrounds almost at every corner, basically, and in Bronzeville they don’t really have that. … they don’t have a safe place to play.”

On Oct. 12, about 200 volunteers from the Anshe Emet Synagogue, where Ariana and Marc are members, and the Bright Star Church are expected to help build the playground, which was designed by Ariana, Marc and kids at the church. The project is estimated to cost about $90,000, all of which is being raised by word-of-mouth and through an Indiegogo campaign.

The bar mitzvah for boys and the bat mitzvah for girls signal that they are considered old enough to participate in all aspects of the Jewish community and become an adult through a ceremony at their synagogue. The services are usually followed by a party hosted by the celebrants and their family.

“The park-build is our party,” Ariana said. “We’re going to have all of our friends and family come out and build with us.”

Donations have come in from friends and family, friends of friends and from as far away as Amsterdam and Singapore.

“The really unique part about this project is it’s not a corporation … it’s just two eager kids who are making this really cool sacrifice,” said Evan Mynatt, project manager for KaBOOM, the nonprofit group facilitating construction of the playground.

Mynatt said that for a typical project, KaBOOM - which has built more than 2,600 playgrounds across the country - pairs a corporation or foundation with a community group.

The Bright Star playground footprint is about 2,600 square feet, or 28 feet by 93 feet, Mynatt said. Volunteers will arrive on site at 8 a.m. and finish construction by 2:30 p.m.

Children will help assemble pieces of the playground and move mulch onto the site, while the adults mix concrete and set up the playground features.

“It’s really been this kind of fun, festive, family-oriented day,” Mynatt said. “It’s really special.”

Though build day is weeks away, the planning process has allowed the Lakeview kids to make connections and form friendships with people they otherwise wouldn’t get to know. Earlier in August, children from both communities got together to talk about their dream playgrounds and what elements - monkey bars, slides, etc. - they’d like to see on the Bright Star structure.

“We’re connecting the different races, the white community near us and the black community in Bronzeville, the different religions (and) the different neighborhoods,” Ariana said. “It’s cool how we live on opposite sides of Chicago (and) we don’t have a lot in common, but we’ve become friends.”

Bright Star Pastor Chris Harris and Anshe Emet Rabbi Michael Siegel have been working together over the past few years to build bridges between the two religious communities. They said it was wonderful to see children connect themselves.

“Their idea was the fulfillment of our hope, that through my relationship with Pastor Harris and Bright Star Church that we could begin to create relationships through the generations,” Siegel said. “It’s an idea that has legs.”

Though there is a Park District park about a block from the church, Harris said it’s a challenge to take children there for after-school and summer programs because of the possibility of violence.

“It’s going to be amazing to have that resource for recreation right outside the doors of the church where the kids can still have a great time,” Harris said.

Though the Indiegogo campaign ended on Aug. 23, Ariana and Marc’s families are continuing to raise money through

Siegel said he hopes Ariana and Marc’s project will serve as a model for other congregations to come together and build playgrounds in their communities.

“Everyone can take steps to make the world a better place and everyone can make a difference,” Ariana said.