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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Creating a Spark

Community Service: Students transform local school playgrounds into parks

As hundreds of San Antonio executives descended on Wheatley Middle School to tackle the final construction needed to transform the playground and sports fields into what would become a new community park, a class of UTSA students waited for their moment to stand out.

In a role reversal designed specifically for the city's latest San Antonio Sports SPARK park, UTSA construction students would be the ones managing nearly 300 managers from H-E-B and the company's many vendors. The June 4 event followed six months of planning after the Wheatley SPARK was chosen as one of several charity work projects to be completed during H-E-B's 30th annual Tournament of Champions.

"This whole project wouldn't have happened without UTSA," says George Block, chairman of the San Antonio Sports Foundation. "On the front end, the architecture students did the fundamental site plan and design. On the back end, the construction students slammed the rest of the construction together and made it all happen."

SPARKs are hybrids of school playgrounds and community parks. The Wheatley SPARK was one of the largest San Antonio has seen since adopting the Houston program in 2012. With previous projects, under the tutelage of architecture professor Taeg Nishimoto, only UTSA architecture students were involved. They drew up the plans to be handed over to an architect, saving money for organizers.

The Wheatley design included, among other improvements, more lighting, a soccer field and exercise equipment in the area of the existing football field. Former NFL player Priest Holmes is consulting on the circuit exercise equipment, according to Roger Rodriguez, the physical education and health coordinator for San Antonio Independent School District.

John Murphy, dean of UTSA's College of Architecture, Construction and Planning, says the SPARK program fits into the mission of providing service learning for students, adding, "Our students need to graduate with a sense of cultural leadership."

Because this project was picked for such a large group of volunteers, organizers decided senior construction students would plan out what was needed from the volunteers. The students led the orientation, going over safety protocols and organizing the groups while managing the site, says Yilmaz Karasulu, chair of the Department of Construction Science.

"It was really cool how motivated the park made the community," says Genevie Ramirez M.Arch. '15, who was involved in the city's first SPARK, at Sky Harbour Elementary School. Ramirez's role grew for a project at Camelot Elementary School, where she led meetings with the public to hear feedback that was incorporated into the design. "Community members had their ideas of what it should be," she adds, "and they took pride in that project because they had a say in it."

–Michelle Mondo


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