How quickly things can change with the efforts of five professional athletes. For the students of El Primer Paso in Dover, N.J., that became a reality as Jets rookies Kyle Wilson, John Conner, Vladimir Ducasse, Jeff Cumberland and Martin Tevaseu all converged onto their playground to help create a fun environment for those students for years to come. The players tackled an immense pile of mulch to spread for a safe environment, and also helped donate $45,000.
"It feels good just to be out here with all those kids," Ducasse said. "We pretty much came here today to help them put the final touch on their playground and being out there spending time with them. It's a great feeling. You go back and you give back and spend time with kids."
The playground itself had been constructed over the previous weeks, with the help of the United Way, Hollister Construction Services and Mangiro Contracting. It was outfitted with a jungle gym of sorts that included a big slide, monkey bars and a variety of other playing spaces. In addition, there was a newly built handicap access ramp.
"I'm so thrilled on behalf on the kids and the families that we serve," said Susan O'Donnell, El Primer Paso's executive director. "The donation that they gave for our new playground is something that our kids never would have had the opportunity to have otherwise. So they're thrilled. We're incredibly grateful to the Jets organization."
Ever since the Green & White moved their headquarters from Hempstead, N.Y., to Florham Park, N.J., in September 2008, the team has been intent on making an impact in the community. Through the United Way, the Jets have been able to do exactly that. John Franklin, the CEO of United Way of Morris County, had glowing words about his partnership with the Jets, led by community relations director Jesse Linder.
"We have two big brands coming together around important issues," said Franklin who interacted with the students and players throughout the afternoon. "We would not be able to make the progress we're making without that relationship. It's about the opportunity to demonstrate that individuals as great as the Jets and as little as anybody else can have on the community. This is a fantastic event. These guys took the time to come here, do some hard labor, be with the kids and change the lives of these kids."
At first, the massive pile of green mulch behind the playground looked daunting, with players and children climbing on top of it for photo ops. Once the shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows arrived, however, the mound steadily decreased in size and the playground itself came to life with color. The smiles on the children's faces were matched by the laughs of the players, who enjoyed spending some time bonding off the field and interacting with their fans.
"As a kid I always looked up to football players because I wanted to be an NFL player myself," Conner said. "So to see these guys out here helping us would be a big moment for me. It's something they can remember forever. It makes me feel good just to be able to help them and volunteer my time even on a day off. It's fun for me."
The students had a chance to get autographs from their heroes, with some even electing to get their arms and foreheads signed by the players. Rave reviews such as "It's awesome" and "So cool" were given by the preschool students, whose school is dedicated to a dual-language curriculum. As the players finally left after a solid workout that would have made strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi proud, they received a large ovation and realized the magnitude of the impact they had just made.
"The interaction with the kids has been great," Wilson said during a quick break from maneuvering a loaded wheelbarrow. "Everybody is so excited and they're just offering help, so we're just having a good time. I think it's a great experience to come out here. It means a lot to us to just come out and help a project that will help out these kids for years and years."