Extreme Home Makeover: Playground Edition

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Chris Stagner
  • 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The village of Graf Ignatievo, Bulgaria, is small. With a population of around 2,000 people, it's an eclectic mix of the past and present. It's just as easy to see a car drive by as it is to see a donkey pass.

Entering the village is almost like taking a time machine to 1950 small-town U.S.A.; maybe more. Referring to the village's market, Staff Sgt. Lance Clark, an operations resource manager from the 493rd Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, said it was "a true mom and pop shop." He said it with a smile on his face, as though he was recalling a fond memory from his childhood.

The homes are modest. The people are friendly. The community is strong. Everyone knows everyone. Children run up and down the streets while their parents sit and watch them. Birds chirp as the sun comes out.

It's close to the perfect community according to Mayor Ivan Semerdjiev, a former major in the Bulgarian air force who spent his entire career at nearby Graf Ignatievo Air Force Base.

There is only one thing missing - a place for families to meet as a community and allow the children to play.

"It's important in Bulgarian culture for the community to come together in the evenings," said the mayor. "Until recently, there was no where outdoors in the village to do this."

It was little more than a year ago when the village received a European Project grant to clear waste materials and garbage from a roughly three-square acre plot of land in the center of town that was being used as a landfill. It was a long process to get the grant.

"Bulgaria is in a time of transition, and creating parks and community areas is considered a luxury," he said.

Once the area was cleared and benches were installed, it became a popular gathering location for villagers.

"But it still wasn't family friendly or child safe," said Mayor Semerdjiev.

That changed May 22, 2010, when 120 U.S. Air Force Airmen in Bulgaria taking part in Sentry Gold, a joint-training exercise designed to integrate the Bulgarian air force into NATO operations and build partnership capacities between the two air forces, arrived at the former landfill and made it their own for one day.

"We have a legacy in the 493rd [Fighter Squadron] to do a community service project at every location we go to," said Capt. Jordan LeVine, 493rd FS assistant chief of mobility and event project officer. "When we got here, we wanted to continue that legacy, so we asked the mayor if there was anything we could do for his community. He said his village would like a park. So a park is what we've given them."

Mayor Semerdjiev coordinated with Graf Ignatievo AFB to receive a donation of abandoned playground equipment. American Airmen here for the exercise joined with the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria to raise $1,600. The money was used to buy safety equipment for the work; supplies and paint to make the slides, swings and jungle gyms more aesthetically pleasing; and sand to make the playground area safe for children.
That doesn't include the almost 1,000 man hours volunteered for the project.

"If the Americans had not come to us, this would have been impossible," said the mayor. "With the resources I have available to me, a project of this magnitude would have taken almost a year and a half. With the American volunteers and the specialties they brought, our children and families will have that park today."

It was 8 a.m. when the first of the Airmen started to arrive. By 9 a.m. villagers were cautiously watching them. By 11 a.m. they were congregating to watch the Americans at work. By 12:30 p.m., a man and his two children became the first people to play at the park.

"We came to build partnerships with our friends at Graf [Ignatievo Air Force Base]," said Tech. Sgt. Phillip Ford, 48th Maintenance Group Quality Assurance inspector and event maintenance project officer. "We're just as happy, if not happier; to know we're also building relationships in the local community."