FAIRMONT — With sweat dripping off his brow, Mel Williams yanks some tree limbs away from a fence surrounding the baseball field at Calvin Haggins Park in Fairmont.
Williams, president of the Make-A-Smile foundation, is doing his part to ensure that children from the small town in Robeson County don’t end up seeing him at his day-to-day job.
“Almost all of us volunteers are in criminal justice — prison workers,” Williams said. “If we can keep one kid out of prison by doing this playground, then mission accomplished.”
Williams was one of more than 20 volunteers from around the nation on hand Wednesday morning at Calvin Haggins Park, nearing the completion of a five-day project to restore and rebuild a place for children to have fun.
“We’re just a bunch of volunteers trying to pay it forward,” he said. “We look out through the country for communities that need assistance. A lot of it comes together at the last minute because it’s all about volunteers. That’s kind of what happened here. This will be a safe and fun place for families to come. That’s all the reward we need.”
Felecia McLean-Kesler, representing Fairmont’s Board of Commissioners, brought the project to the town through the prison system in Tabor City with the goal of restoring Calvin Haggins and Rudolph Currie parks.
“Brad Perritt from Tabor City (Correctional Institution) brought it to me,” she said. “Rudolph Currie Park was actually under water after Hurricane Matthew. I took it to the Fairmont Board of Commissioners and the process started from there.”
Organized in 2007 following Hurricane Katrina, the Make-A-Smile foundation falls under the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents organizational umbrella.
Mike Hynes, Make-A-Smile secretary, said the goal after the storm was to “find a way for the kids to be recognized.”
“The Make-A-Smile foundation is about going in, providing, showing relief and support to those impacted by a natural disaster,” Hynes said. “In 10 years, this is our sixth playground.”
Hynes, who lives in Raleigh, was influential in bringing the foundation to Robeson County.
“At the last national conference, we recognized that North Carolina had a severe storm in Matthew and we recognized the state would be a good candidate.”
After meeting with the county’s local officials earlier this year and “some fundraising efforts,” Hynes and Williams were set to bring a crew to Fairmont.
“We were over in Lumberton at (Northeast Park) and that was way out of our league,” Hynes said with a laugh.
“But when we came here and saw these residential parks, we saw a community that needed a little hug from outsiders. That’s kind of what we do. We get the community involved and we’re here for you. The kids need a place to go. We want to provide a safe place to go and have fun.”
Hynes said the projects typically costs anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000.
“We do hire professionals to make sure the playground equipment goes in well,” he said. “But all of the labor, all of the people here are donating time. They come on their own dime.”
Ricky McKinnon, assistant director of Robeson County’s Parks and Recreation Department, praised several local officials for helping with the project.
“County Commissioner Berelester Campbell, County Manager Ricky Harris and Wendy Chavis, director of Robeson County’s Parks and Recreation Department, were instrumental in bringing this to Fairmont,” McKinnon said.
McKinnon also praised the Make-A-Smile foundation for doing its part to give Fairmont’s parks a face-lift.
“It’s very important to have places for young people to come and burn off some of that energy,” he said.
“There’s joy knowing that there’s so many things that are going on in our country and our county each day, but you see there are still a lot of people in this country with their hearts in the right place. What these people are doing is remarkable.”
As he surveyed an erected piece of playground equipment, Hynes said he knows the park will benefit the community.
“It is selfishly rewarding. We don’t always see immediately what happens, but we see it later on,” he said.
“We’ve already had a few lifelong relationships established. It’s just going to have a ripple effect. We threw the rock in and now the waves are going out. It really is selfishly rewarding. It’s a really good feeling.”
Wearing a yellow Make-A-Smile shirt, McLean-Kesler smiled as she put on some gloves to continue helping the other volunteers.
“I’m all-in and committed to my town of Fairmont,” she said. “I’m all for the youth and putting a smile on their face.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.