Looking out at a sea of volunteers working on the playground at Francis W. Parker Montessori School #56, Principal Christine Rembert got emotional.
“Our students come from places of challenge, many of them. And to think that an organization like the Colts cares enough about us to even consider that we need something like this,” she said while wiping her eyes. “For people to come alongside us with their time and their talents - it’s transformative, really.”
It was a day all about transformation.
“There was really dated metal equipment and it was just super limited. It’s a very small space and the school has changed over the years to be so special needs focused and a lot of the needs of the kids weren’t being met,” said Karen Young, who has three kids at the school.
“I love the inclusiveness of this building,” she said. “It’s a blend of cultures and ages and stages and that’s so key and crucial and missing.”
The goal was to make the outside of the building just as inclusive.
“The merry-go-round, able-bodied students and special needs students can play on it at the same time together. And the swings that are inclusive - we’re making some huge strides,” Young said.
It was also emotional for her.
“I’ve cried about five times. Because there's no amount of $2500 grants we could apply for to get all of this done at one time.”
It was a process that started months ago.
“We started conversations with the school back in May when we selected them,” said Ashley Powell, Director of Community Relations for the Colts. “No two builds are the same. We really worked with the school and their needs. This school has a high population of kids with autism. So, we definitely took that into account with some sensory pieces that are going to be on the playground and just the accessibility of the playground in general.”
“The willingness to talk with us about the needs of our school community, about our students with autism, about the sensory panels, about bringing the students an ability to be outside and learn,” Rembert said. “I just couldn’t believe they wanted to talk about that, that they wanted to hear about it, that they were excited to think and dream differently than maybe what happened in the past.”
For the 12th consecutive year the Colts with the help of over 150 volunteers from Lucas Oil Products, Dunkin Donuts, Ingredion Incorporated, Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance, Glick, Maingate, Papa Johns, Republic Services, and Francis W. Parker joined with Rebuilding Together Indianapolis and Sinclair Recreation for a playground build at Francis W. Parker.
On Friday, volunteers from the Colts, Indianapolis Public Schools, Rebuilding Together-Indianapolis and Sinclair Recreation gathered to do prep work for the big day on Monday.
“Prep day is so necessary. We have a smaller group of volunteers and it’s a hard day, but build day is so much fun because we have close to 200 volunteers out here and they’re from the Colts, they’re from all of our partners that participate,” Powell said. “It’s fun to see everybody come together for one common goal and it’s fun to see the kids’ faces all day long peeking out these windows.”
And what they see is a lesson itself.
“A lot of the time, the work feels like we’re planting seeds and young people are watching them grow,” said Rembert. “Our kiddos are beyond excited. Several of them have said, ‘I didn’t know that somebody like that cared about us.’”
On Monday, it was undeniable.
“This is the 12th annual playground build and this is actually our big Huddle for 100,” said Powell. “We amplified it in conjunction with the NFL’s 100th season and the philanthropic effort of the Huddle for 100.”
Over 100 seasons, the NFL has established a tradition that goes beyond football. This season, the NFL is encouraging one million people to give 100 minutes of their time in celebration of the league’s 100th season.
“The NFL is always giving back. Every team in their own way gives back,” said defensive end Jabaal Sheard. Over the past eight seasons, Sheard has established his own tradition of giving back. And the playground build is something he’s done every year.
“You’d think I’d know how to put together a playground by now,” he laughed.
Linebacker Anthony Walker has also participated in the playground build every year.
“I try to do something different at each event,” he said. “This is my third time doing this one. I never painted, so let’s try that.”
After playing in Nashville on Sunday, Walker wasn’t surprised by how many of his teammates showed up to help out on Monday, their only day off during the season.
“The guys on our team, everybody is just selfless. We understand that this is a part of it. This is a part of our schedule - taking time out of our Monday to come and give back. Whatever event it is, we want to come out and be a part of it. This is where we play football. Indianapolis is our town.”
For tight end Jack Doyle, Indianapolis has always been home.
“I didn’t grow up too far from where this is - a 10 minute drive from here,” he said.
He’s seen his team give back to the community for his entire life.
“It’s what the Colts are all about. They do this all the time and it’s a lot of fun."
It’s a community Doyle’s wife, Casie, is proud to be a part of.
“This is definitely a unique community. I feel like the wives this year are just so involved,” she said. “It is definitely a family-oriented group of people and I love it.”
She was one of several Colts wives in attendance on Monday.
“You need everybody. It takes a village,” said Kelly Eberflus, wife of Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus. “You need support from all aspects of the organization.”
“I love the playground build. It’s the most fun I have all year,” said Kristin Ballard, wife of General Manager Chris Ballard. “You see the kids’ faces, you get out here, you get dirty - I love being a part of it.”
And she’s been a part of it every year.
For quarterback Chad Kelly, it was a way to embrace the team and the city that’s embraced him.
“Those guys are loving, caring teammates just like all these fans. The community is embracing me,” he said. “As many times as you can - to give back to the community and put smiles on people’s faces and see these kids have fun out here, that’s what it’s all about.”
For the 12th consecutive year, the Colts and their partners came together to transform a school playground.
“It’s a community effort and watching everybody work and come together, that’s what being part of a community is,” said defensive tackle Margus Hunt.
It’s a project that benefits an entire community.
And it will for years to come.
“It’s exciting to see that generation after generation, the community will be able to enjoy this playground,” Ballard said.
Many of life’s lessons are learned on the playground.
“Play is the work of children,” said Rembert. “All the social, emotional, and soft skills happen out here - how they work out conflict, how they take turns, how they share.”
Today, the students at Francis W. Parker Montessori have a beautiful new space to play, learn, and grow.
And the story of how it came to be is a lesson in history - of the NFL, the Colts, and 100 seasons of giving back.