By Annie Rubinson–
With summer camps closed due to COVID-19, the leaders and volunteers of Alexandra’s Playground have been working to provide local children with opportunities to remain active and playful this summer.
Alexandra’s Playground was founded in 2009 by Irvington residents Michael and Andrea Vitale, after they lost their three-year-old daughter in an accident. “We wanted to do something that would be long-lasting, that would always honor and memorialize Alex,” Andrea said. The mission of their 501(c)(3) organization is to foster activity throughout the tri-state area through playground building projects in under-served communities, as well as a series of other programs that encourage and raise awareness about safe and active play, according to their website.
Executive Director Lori Hrbek explained, “Play is such an important part of childhood and there are so many places where there is nowhere safe to go outside. The nearest playground could be too far away or not in a safe neighborhood.” Thirty public playgrounds have been built through the organization to date.
After pausing building projects due to COVID-19, and seeing a heightened need to encourage and enable play, Alexandra’s Playground launched a new initiative entitled “Summer Fun: JUST PLAY!” Using donation funds, the organization ordered a variety of toys and games such as soccer balls, frisbees, decks of cards and jump ropes to be assembled into bags and distributed to local families in need.
Vitale said this idea was generated by a youth advisory board comprised of young volunteers. Once the materials arrived, the Vitale family invited these kids and their families to their backyard to put the packages together, socially distanced. Nearly two months after fundraising for this project began, 225 of 550 total packages have already been delivered across Westchester through a series of local non-profits selected by the young volunteers. They include Greenburgh Cares and the Ossining Community Action Center. “It was super cool that these young kids were able to reach out to their communities and find areas of need,” Vitale said.
Vitale said she viewed the “Summer Fun: JUST PLAY!” initiative as the perfect opportunity to localize the impact of Alexandra’s Playground. “We live in such an affluent area, but there are pockets of areas of need and this was such a great way to give back,” she said. Bags were also distributed in various areas in New York City, Connecticut and New Jersey.
Hrbek described the reactions of local families to the Summer Fun bags. “It was very humbling to watch the kids open the bags and say, ‘Wow, I’ve always wanted a deck of cards,’ or seeing a mother teach their child how to jump rope for the first time,” she said. Vitale agreed, saying she was pleased with the turnout of volunteers as well as their enthusiasm for the project.
The playground-building element of Alexandra’s Playground will continue to remain active, but many fall building projects have been postponed until the spring. The purpose of this is to keep the emphasis on community building. “Even though we are funding the equipment, we always want the community to have ownership of the playground,” Vitale said. However, after seeing the positive response of local families to the summer initiative, she and Hrbek hope to continue the “Summer Fun: JUST PLAY!” initiative in future summers.
Vitale shared the impact of her work with Alexandra’s Playground on her and her family’s lives. “It’s been everything. Especially for my four boys, it’s been a way for them to keep Alex in their minds always – to say, ‘Our sister isn’t here but we are able to give back to lots of other kids in other ways.’ It’s beyond meaningful to me.”
For more information about Alexandra’s Playground, visit: http://alexandrasplayground.org/