For three years, Darius Alexander '02 supervised children on the dilapidated playground at Spanaway Elementary School. Because there were only a few swings and balls available, he spent much of the recess period trying to calm down children and teach them to share the sparse toys the school had to offer.
"To be honest, they would argue and fight a lot," said Alexander, who was a teacher's aide and playground supervisor while earning his degree in sociology from PLU.
People at school knew it was important to provide the kids with good, safe equipment to play on, and he and teachers discussed several ways to raise money, such as recycling cans. Then Alexander had a better idea - he would simply ask someone for the money.
He wrote to State Farm Insurance, where he had completed an internship during the summer of 2001 and was scheduled to start work after graduation. Alexander explained the need and the fact that the financially strapped district hadn't been able to replace dilapidated equipment when it was removed. He stressed the importance of instilling pride among students for their school.
To his surprise and students' elation, State Farm paid for brand new playground equipment and more with a grant of nearly $28,000. Now, a large red and blue, steel and plastic playground structure draws all the children around at recess. They climb, crawl, slide and hang from its bars. Children from the neighborhood also use the playground after school and on weekends. The new equipment was installed shortly before school recessed in June.
Younger children also enjoy a large sandbox. And there's even a little money leftover for something else to be added in the future.
"Just being out here at recess was so different," Alexander said. "The kids play together and take turns. They took pride in it, they took ownership. You don't really see any garbage out here any more. Before it was always a mess."
State Farm offered a grant in the interest of following its motto of being a good neighbor. Alexander says the company is sincere in its efforts . "They're real about wanting to help the community."
"We're glad that Darius brought this idea to us," said Vicki Harper, a State Farm public affairs specialist. "The playground gets used a lot, not only by the students but the surrounding community. It fits right in with our goal of helping communities."
The Bethel School District paid for the concrete foundation and the spongy, black top under the equipment.
Alexander, who grew up in Tacoma and attended nearby Thompson Elementary School, said it probably would've been years before the playground was improved without the grant. "I think we saved cans for about two months and got about 94 cents," he said with a laugh.
Spanaway Elementary is comprised of students from diverse economic backgrounds, Alexander said. He drew on his sociology background to work closely with the children, many who have special needs.
"You really have to teach kids how to care about each other before you can teach them to learn," he said.
Alexander and his wife, Monica, recently bought a house in Spanaway. He says he's enjoying his job as a claims representative, but he misses being at the school on a regular basis.
"It was hard leaving the kids after being here three years," said the man students call "Mr. D or Mr. A." "I'm proud to say it's my school."
Caption: Darius Alexander '02 stands on the playground equipment that he helped bring to Spanaway Elementary School. Alexander wrote a grant proposal to State Farm, his employer, which paid $28,000 to revitalize the school playground.