Since she took over as Branch Manager of the Fairmont City Library when it first opened back in 2008, Katie Heaton couldn’t help but envision something bigger every time she walked by the open expanse of land to the south of the building.
“How could you walk out into that yard with that huge pavilion and not see a playground sitting out there?” Heaton said. “So anytime we would walk around and talk about what improvements we could make and how we could do more with this library, I would say ‘Can’t you just picture a playground right here?’”
As of late Monday afternoon, Heaton no longer has to play the what if game as the entire Rams staff, rookie class, several veterans and representatives of NuToys Leisure Products converged on Fairmont City for the team’s fourth annual playground build.
After dealing with the almost traditional bad weather that seems to come every year with the playground build, the staff and players divided into their assigned groups and began construction on a playground that includes a swing set, a jungle gym and a slide among other things. Some handled landscaping duty, some worked on painting a mural inside the library and others, such as coach Jeff Fisher took a more supervisory role.
Much like he would during an inclement weather practice, Fisher was in charge of keeping an eye on the lightning and overseeing the work in progress.
In addition to the importance of the playground itself within a community in need, Fisher viewed it as an opportunity for the rookie class to learn something important about their new community and continue to build all important camaraderie.
“It’s fun,” Fisher said. “The guys are getting used to each other on the field, in the weight room and meals but now they come out here and break up into little teams and do things like this so it’s a great exercise.”
That’s not to say much of their carpentry skills, of course.
“They don’t know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver,” Fisher said, laughing.
Of course, the mission of the annual playground build is an entirely selfless one that can have a long lasting impact on the community. The Rams have previously built expansive playgrounds in East St. Louis, at Monroe eMINTS Academy in St. Louis city and Giant Steps of St. Louis in Maplewood.
Perhaps those communities all needed a safe place for kids to go and play as much as Fairmont City but none needed it more.
Fairmont City itself is home to about 2,600 people with a population that is a little more than two-thirds Hispanic making it one of the largest Hispanic populations per capita in the state of Illinois.
The Fairmont City Library Center is a member of the Mississippi Valley Library District located just five miles across the river from St. Louis. The center serves as one of the only gathering places for children and adults alike in a village with no school, city park or playground structure within an eight-mile radius.
Barbara Rhodes, the Director of the Mississippi Valley Library District, said the addition of a playground to the existing library instantly gives the community a place it can be proud of.
“It’s one of the only places kids can go around here,” Rhodes said. “We do have technology but we are really trying to make sure they keep the physical end going to so they can go outside and play. When we found out we were getting the playground, it was a perfect fit, just the absolute perfect fit. It takes it full circle now that these kids will have everything they need.”
Establishing a safe environment that can provide children in Fairmont City the opportunities to learn and play has been many years in the making.
Lieutenant Noe Marquez moved to Fairmont City with his family when he was a toddler and today serves on the police force in the village. Growing up, he and his friends had to get creative when it came time to go out and play.
Marquez said he and his friends played bicycle tag all over town but never had one place they could congregate. He looked on with great pride as the playground was built on Monday afternoon.
“This is exactly what the kids need, a place they can come and play as well as learn at the library,” Marquez said. “What people don’t understand is that when I grew up, my parents were Spanish speaking so my father had a third grade education and my mother had a sixth grade education. So I came home with homework and couldn’t ask my parents for help. I had to figure it out on my own. So when you have a library here, kids can come to ask for help, research things online and then come out and play and just feel safe and feel like people care about them.”
The addition of the library in 2008 came on the heels of the closing of the Holy Rosary school, the only school in the village for kids in the community. The initial incarnation of the library came in the same building that previously just housed the local American Legion.
Upon opening the library, the facility served as a place for children and the community to go during the day before it closed at 6 each night and re-opened as a bar attached to the American Legion. Soon after the library district did what was necessary to take over the entire building and a mural now adorns the wall where the bar used to be.
In the years since the library opened in 2008, it has grown to include more technology including computers and televisions and even video gaming systems for the 150-plus adults and children that visit on a daily basis.
Still, the one thing missing throughout was a place for kids to go out and play and run around. The field that now holds the playground was used for games and such but had no actual apparatus for anyone to play on.
“When we opened, the economics hit and the school closed,” Heaton said. “We didn’t see that coming but we thought ‘Oh my gosh, the school closed and the library opened and then all of the kids started coming here for activities.’ We were trying to promote learning and gaining knowledge through research and things in the library but also weighing how to give the children something they can do.”
When the Rams opened up the application process for this year’s playground build, Rhodes and Heaton jumped at the opportunity and wrote their proposal.
Upon finding out they had been chosen, they couldn’t contain their excitement.
“I think I jumped up and down three or four times,” Heaton said. “I told all the kids the St. Louis Rams were going to build them a playground. They could not believe it. I told them to go outside and see what it was and they were expecting a little thing but I told them it was going to be a great big thing on this whole field. They were going absolutely crazy. They kept saying ‘The St. Louis Rams are coming to Fairmont City? I said yes. They said ‘really?’ They didn’t believe me. They kept saying ‘Are they really coming?’ The kids were just going crazy. The community is excited. This is a fun thing for them to get involved in. It’s a great thing for the Rams to give back to the community and it’s a great thing for the community to have something they can be proud of in their hometown.”
The Rams’ presence in the community brought plenty of people to observe, take some pictures and grab an autograph. They cooked food for a community potluck and offered a helping hand where possible.
The end result was something much more valuable than some monkey bars and swings.
“In one word: excitement,” Marquez said. “They have seen these guys on TV and seen them playing football. They are bigger than life. That’s what is really exciting about it. They are excited about the playground and knowing that a week from now, a month from now, two years from now when they are swinging or sliding, they can say these were built by the hands of professional athletes that we look up to.”