A new playground in downtown Vinton, Va., has been transformative for local children and for the Baptist congregation that helped build it.
“For me and for church leadership, we really did see this as an extension of the Great Commission,” said Travis Russell, senior pastor of Vinton Baptist Church.
Russell acknowledged Christ’s command to go into the world to make disciples is typically associated with wide-ranging evangelism efforts, not partnering with area nonprofits to bring recreation space into a city’s downtown.
“The first instruction of the Commission is ‘go.’ But even though ‘going’ in this scenario is going across the street, this was a way for us to get outside the walls of our church and not just provide play space for the kids of our church, but for the kids of our community,” he explained.
The playground, which officially opened Nov. 1, was constructed Oct. 25-27 on a parcel donated by the church and in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Southwest Virginia, the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth and KABOOM!, a national nonprofit that works with community groups to address play space inequality.
Vinton Baptist has been a partner of the Boys and Girls Clubs since 2020, first as a site for K-5 virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, and currently as the site of the organization’s after-school youth development program.
“Providing children with the opportunity to run, play, work together and learn in a safe and fun outdoor environment directly correlates to our priority for healthy lifestyles,” said Emily Pinkerton, director of development for Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia.
Before the playground opened, Vinton Baptist was the only Boys and Girls Clubs site in the state without outdoor play space. “We are incredibly grateful to Vinton Baptist Church for leading the charge and for our ability to be part of such a special project that will have a lasting impact on our young people,” Pinkerton said.
The Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth administered KABOOM! Grants to build eight playgrounds across the state in 2023, said Jenny Martin, the foundation’s southwest regional grants administrator.
“Our organization wants to empower young people to make healthy choices, and we know that play is essential to healthy childhood development,” she said. “Knowing that not every community has the same access to quality play spaces, we collaborated with KABOOM! to extend this grant opportunity to public schools, nonprofits and faith-based groups statewide.”
The Vinton Baptist playground is open exclusively to the Boys and Girls Clubs students for a designated time in the afternoons, and to the general public the rest of each day, Russell said. Church youth are using the playground on Wednesday nights and Sundays after church.
“Not only has such a space been missing in our partnership with Boys and Girls Clubs, but it has also been unavailable for our congregation’s children’s ministry,” the pastor said.
The recreation area includes a shelter, picnic tables and benches for adults to sit and socialize while watching their children play. It’s also intended to foster an atmosphere of fellowship, Russell said.
“From a community standpoint, the walls and the doors of the church can be an intimidating place for people to cross. The playground offers a space that maybe doesn’t have some of the barriers the building itself does and instead is a place where people can find community.”
And Vinton needs it, Russell said. The small city located near Roanoke has a downtown that hosts numerous chain and local restaurants and some upscale apartments, but also has a median annual household income of $30,000. That’s part of the reason why the community qualified for the KABOOM! grant.
“Plus, there was no public playground in walking distance from downtown,” Russell said. “The closest working playground is at a local elementary school 2 miles away. That’s why we wanted the space here to be open to the public. We see this as a way to live the Great Commandment — to love our neighbors by providing a space everyone can come and enjoy.”
The facility already is bringing people together in Vinton, he said. Its ribbon-cutting ceremony drew widespread media coverage and was attended by city politicians, civic leaders and business owners, many of whom paid to have the six-foot fence erected around the playground. “It was a real kingdom moment. There were groups of people who maybe have never been together before,” the pastor said.
Other gatherings have also been happening. “It’s been exciting to see children and families playing and socializing. Truly, I believe that’s what the kingdom of God looks like. That’s what the kingdom is: community.”