It may have been serendipity that two months before my life changed irrevocably in 2012, that I stood in my neighbours’ garden bemoaning the state of our local playground at South Norwood Lake and Grounds. Emboldened by beer and bravado we decided to do something about it. However, a couple of calls to Croydon Council soon revealed the futility of hoping they would pay for either an upgrade to the play equipment let alone a new playground. We were encouraged to set up a Friend’s group and fundraise the £100,000 we needed ourselves.
Winter 2012 and our playground looks like it needs a lot of TLC…
That was the start. The Lakes Playground Action Group was born soon after with a core of around 7 committee members made up of local parents and residents. I went to those first meetings unable to see anyone clearly – they were just ghostly figures to me as my sight was still slowly returning week on week. Getting involved in this project was challenging (I could not read a computer screen until around five months into my recovery), but it proved extremely cathartic too. Running a playground charity is a steep learning curve, but we soon learnt, the more we put in the more we got back. Well…I certainly did.
We registered as a charity in 2013 and dived into a full community consultation. This took over a year to complete and involved numerous online questionnaires, school consultations – running groups collecting data and ideas for what our local children wanted and needed from a new playground. Then there was the fundraising. This took years. And, years. We have sold cakes, run around South Norwood lake dressed up in Sumo suits, stood freezing on stalls persuading the local people of Crystal Palace to support our numerous ventures. It’s inevitable that after three years of slog (believe me fundraising for a small community project is full time work and at times extremely disheartening) we lost the will to live. One committee meeting held in my living room saw a pivotal moment. We had embarked upon a Crowdfunding campaign to try and raise £10,000 with the hope this would springboard to getting Section 106 monies released from Croydon Council – in turn enabling us to apply for the ‘big grants’. We had learnt early on – you can only get money when you have money.
Two months into our campaign and we only had half of what we needed, and were risking losing that if we didn’t suddenly find a way to raise £5k. That in itself is hard, but it’s nigh on impossible in January when everyone is feeling the post-Christmas pinch.
Hearing our worried murmurs my daughter who was 8 yrs old at the time, crept downstairs in her nightie. Hovering at the living room door she saw our downcast faces. ” It’s not fair Mum,” she said, making us all look around. “I’m going to write to the Queen – she’ll give you some money for the playground !”. At hearing this one of our key members (heavily pregnant at the time) burst into tears. But, my daughter was right. We did get some money from the beautiful letter she wrote the Queen. Of course, not from the place you might think, but from the snowball of letters that ensued. Our local kids wrote to everyone ! HRH Prince William, CP Football Club, Father Christmas, David Cameron….they wrote to all of them in their beautiful scrawls, with stickers and drawings. Two letters landed on a desk of someone that cared and he gave us £1,000. Then our local Ward Councillors got involved. They had supported us from the first day, but now they had a grant they could share amongst community groups – so they gave us £2,000. Then the community sat up and listened. The money started rolling in and we thanked everyone individually on our Facebook page.
We didn’t just hit our target of £10k, we smashed it. Then we won a smaller grant…and the Section 106 money, so all we had to do was apply to Veolia and The Marathon Trust (no mean feat). In the meantime we also won the Tesco’s Bags of Help campaign locally. We went crazy raising the last money we needed to match fund these larger grants, running a comedy night and a host of smaller events. We’d had invaluable help from a local grandmother who had been a playground consultant so with her guidance we could finally see the finish line. Then we got told we’d won the Mayor of Croydon’s Voluntary Group of the Year award, which galvanised us enormously.
We had final design in and spent hours researching the right equipment we wanted for our play area that fitted with what the community wanted. After holding a committee board and asking each playground company who we had asked to bid to present their designs – we made a decision.
The final design offered brand new play equipment including a ‘feature’ piece that was as inclusive and as wide-ranging as possible to allow access for all ages and abilities. It included a sensory area and toddler play area as well as a more challenging piece for older children. We were trying to be accessible not only to children but their carers too. When work started we were in shock. We couldn’t believe we were here ! Yet, it felt like the work had just begun. We visited the site every day at the crack of dawn before work, sometimes twice a day to monitor the works – keeping an eagle eye on everything. As I said to a contractor when he was installing our new Supernova roundabout “You may see that as a piece of equipment, but I know that is 10,000 cupcakes we had to flog…”
We could never have raised over £100,000 without the support of our local community, and the press were there at our Opening Party in June 2017. Our local MP Steve Reed was a supporter from day one, and he and the ward councillors backed us all the way.
The local people dug deep into their pockets and bought those cupcakes and sponsored their kids to scoot around the lake to raise money for us. One local guy did a gruelling cycle ride and gave us all of his sponsorship money – everyone did their bit. It took five years. Five years. But it was worth it.
The opening party was incredible….and a day I shall never forget.
The playground now is a haven, we have never seen it so full. Kids play there after school and on weekends, and everyone smiles. It’s been a boost to the area, but Crystal Palace is a special place, people care here and everyone in LPAG knows we would have never kept going without local support.
If you’re in the local area (SE25) then come and see it for yourself !