The more than 240 students at Washington Elementary School in the Normandy School District got much more than they bargained for on Wednesday afternoon.
As previously scheduled, Rams safety Matt Daniels and mascot Rampage visited the school to unveil a new exercise activity as well as other components of the NFL’s PLAY 60 initiative.
Taking part in their annual “spirit week,” the students were informed earlier in the week about a pending surprise but they had little idea of what was to come.
After taking part in the fun and games with Daniels and Rampage, the students were informed of something that will certainly further the PLAY 60 cause on a far more permanent basis.
Daniels, with the help of Rampage, proceeded to announce to the students that their school has been selected as the recipient of the Rams’ fifth annual playground build, which will take place in June.
“This day is so awesome for my kids,” Washington Elementary principal Robin Vaulx-Williams said. “Everything we do here is about the children. The playground we have now is not sufficient. We know how important it is for the kids to have a place that is safe and fun. So this kind of day is unbelievable for us.”
The students and school were then treated to a showing of the plans for the playground, which will again be built by the Rams front office staff, players and coaches. The plan for the playground build will also include other renovation and aesthetic improvements to the school.
The new playground will not only serve the students at Washington Elementary but the entire area around the school.
“You can’t even express the gratitude that this community has for this,” Vinita Park mayor James McGee said. “We have been looking for this for a long time. This really means a great deal to the community. Our kids didn’t have anything to play on. If you go out there, you see what it’s like and we try to give them a place to go where they can really be safe. Now they can have a beautiful playground and it’s safe and they can have fun and also learn at the same time.”
Washington Elementary School currently has a couple unusable play structures and has had to make do with limited resources for recess and any other types of physical activities for the kindergarten through fifth grade students that attend.
Vaulx-Williams is in her first year as the principal at the school but has worked in the district for 21 years and was well aware of the issues that plagued the school upon starting the job.
As usual, the Rams went through an in-depth selection process for this year’s playground build. That process features an open application system that lets places in need submit plans and ideas for the playground as well as statements of need for the school or area.
When a couple of teachers in the school brought the playground build opportunity to Vaulx-Williams, she jumped at the chance to make the pitch on behalf of the school. With help from those teachers, the school got the proper measurements and dimensions and filled out the form.
Soon after, the Rams paid a site visit to the school as they narrowed down the search. Much like the kids waiting to find out the surprise on Wednesday afternoon, Vaulx-Williams and the school faculty eagerly awaited a decision from the Rams.
“We were waiting and hoping but to just actually get that call that they were visiting; we were thrilled,” Vaulx-Williams said. “Just to be able to walk with them and tell them about our buildings and our needs and how it would impact the kids and the community, it was just a good feel. We still didn’t know if we would get it. But just to go through the process and know we had a chance and then getting the call saying ‘Hey, you all are a good fit,’ it was so worth it for the kids.”
Rams vice president of corporate communications and civic affairs Molly Higgins said the decision is never easy but the Rams saw great potential at Washington Elementary.
“Each year, we receive many quality applications and it’s important to us that we do our due diligence and research the communities and organizations in need,” Higgins said. “While each of our finalists possessed great need, we felt as though we could make the most significant impact at Washington this year. When we did the site visit last month, we were struck by the passion that the principal and the staff had for their kids. It was both inspiring and contagious, and we knew immediately that we could make a meaningful impact by providing them with a playground and a way for their students to ‘Play 60’ on a daily basis. To see the kids’ enthusiasm yesterday was extremely rewarding and we can’t wait to return in June to make the playground a reality.”
Before Daniels made the playground announcement, he introduced the students to a series of warm-up exercises and delivered a quick speech that emphasized other components of the PLAY 60 program. PLAY 60 is one of the NFL’s most widely recognized initiatives as it targets childhood obesity by encouraging kids to be active for at least an hour every day.
Daniels and Rampage also offered instruction and guidance to the kids on new ways to get an hour of exercise every day while still having fun.
“I think the biggest message I wanted to get across was just let them know that exercise is important to be healthy and live a healthy life,” Daniels said. “There’s a lot of kids out there that think eating unhealthy things is OK and not exercising right. They live in a society right now where fast food is a big thing. Just seeing these kids out here seeming to be really into fueling up to play 60 is just amazing. You might have a future first round pick in here, you just never know.”
Daniels will return with some of his teammates and the rest of the Rams staff for the playground build in a couple of months. The Rams began the annual playground build tradition back in 2009 when they built one in a part in East St. Louis. Since, they’ve built playgrounds at Monroe eMINTS Academy, the Giant Steps special education school and therapy center for autistic children in Maplewood and last year in Fairmont City, Ill.
With plenty of kids headed home happy, the Rams and Washington Elementary will now begin gearing up for the final stages of planning leading up to the build day.
Halfway through their spirit week, the kids at Washington Elementary were clearly excited about their big surprise even if it hadn’t quite sunk in what the announcement meant.
Now that the secret is out, everyone at the school can engage in the excitement.
“We kept it internally with the adults all week,” Vaulx-Williams said. “We just wanted it to be things as normal and all conditions right and it fell into place. This was our spirit week and we built that up and with the Rams coming they didn’t think anything of it. They really didn’t push because they know I do stuff like that all the time. They were pretty cool about it and now we are all ecstatic.”