By Tina Dirmann
BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer
It’s hard to say who was having more fun at Saturday’s Splash Park unveiling in Jena — the kids awash in water and sheer glee, or the adults looking on, brimming with pride.
Because the new park represents not just a place to play and keep cool this summer. It’s another symbol of change in this evolving community, fighting to reinvent themselves and push back against alarming health statistics of the past (like 68% of the community considered overweight or obese).
“Today, we want to thank the folks at Blue Cross and Blue Shield (of Louisiana Foundation), for seeing fit to give us $1 million, to help make us healthier, to make our lifestyle better in LaSalle Parish,” said Jena Mayor Murphy McMillian. “And let me tell you, it’s working. I’ve been around the parish and I’ve seen the changes.”
The park area was a run-down, 55-year-old community swimming pool, which had to close permanently last year due to upkeep costs, McMillian said. But using funds from our Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant program, awarded to the Live
Lively LaSalle health initiative, officials in the town transformed the pool space into a lively water park, where kids (and adults, should they be so bold), can run around outside and just, well… play. It may not look like exercise, or feel like it to the giggling gaggle of kiddos, but all that running around means the heart is pumping — which is all good.
“They don’t even know they’re exercising,” said Jennifer Wilson, mother to Lexi, 6, and Levi, 10, who spent the afternoon chasing beach balls and getting decidedly
drenched. “They’re just having fun… You have no idea how excited they’ve been. We’ve been driving by and they always looked to see if it’s open yet. They couldn’t wait. Now, we’ll be here all summer!”
BCBSLAF Executive Director Christy Oliver Reeves and Pennington Biomedical Research Center’s Elizabeth Gollub made the drive from Baton Rouge to be a part of Saturday’s ribbon cutting ceremony (which also celebrated an additional quarter mile stretch of a new paved multi-use walking trail, also funded in part with Challenge Grant dollars). And I have to say, Reeves seemed duly impressed by the scene before us.
“This project in particular really touches our hearts,” Reeves said, speaking to a gathered crowd before the water works began to flow. “It means so much to us to see how much we’re impacting this community. We’re proud to be a part of this… My own kids are even here today in bathing suits, ready to go!”
And with that, the ribbon was snipped, an “on” button pressed, and water sprayed forth. And, man oh man, the group of anxiously awaiting kids did not hold back, rushing forward to grab at the dozens of beach balls drifting by and hurling themselves into the mist (or, in some cases, under high-rise buckets steadily filling with water before tipping over, drenching anyone standing below).
“I love it,” said a dripping William Verther, 7, holding tight to his beach ball. “This is so fun!”
“And there’s no age limit here,” the mayor said to the crowd of parents sitting along the sidelines. “If you want to get in there and get wet, well, please do! It’s all part of getting healthy and staying healthy.”
All the water is recirculated, filtered, and pumped back into the various water stations, said Junior Smith, who helped build the system (and whose own 3-year-old daughter, Presleigh, was out there enjoying her daddy’s creation).
“They sure look like they’re enjoying it,” Smith said, nodding approvingly to the kids at play.
The park will be open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday – Saturday.
Councilman David Jones ended the afternoon with a satisfied grin on his face. “There were some folks out here who worried about us taking the pool out,” he said, before motioning to the group of running, screaming, laughing kids in front of us. “But I think that’s all over now. I think we can call this a success.”