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Remembering the 'F.U.N.'-raising

Bradley Lane, left, and Nathan Estleuse “Pennies from Heaven” to fill in sun rays taped on the floor of the New Castle Moose Lodge in February 1999. Children from all across Henry County took part in the fundraiser to help build F.U.N. Playground in Baker Park. All together, they collected 309,872 pennies for the project.

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

Here’s a riddle: What do ice cream sundaes, used toys and spare pennies have in common? Answer: When mixed together, they create long-lasting F.U.N.

All of the above helped do what some may have thought daunting, if not not impossible – raise $100,000 for something that melted hearts and rejuvenated community spirit. It happened 20 years ago as New Castle children teamed with parents and business leaders as well as senior citizens to fund and build the F.U.N. Playground at Baker Park. 

“It has been inspiring for all of us and a great asset for all of Henry County,” said Dr. Helen Steussy of Healthy Communities, who, along with many, many others, was a driving force behind the project’s success.

Steussy and her team continued planning Friday for a 20th anniversary celebration of that effort, called an “Earth Day F.U.N. Fest” that will include special booths, music, food and activities. The event is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 27. Everyone is invited, especially those who played a role in making the F.U.N. Playground a reality. 

Two decades after it was built, the F.U.N. Playground remains a source of pride for the hundreds here who helped make it happen and joy for a new generation of youngsters in Baker Park.

Dr. Steussy remembers the excitement when plans for the playground came together but also the sobering realization that raising $100,000 would be no easy task.

It was done one penny at a time – in some cases, quite literally.

“We were creative,” Steussy remembers. “We had to be. While Doug Mathis and Janelle Conley spent many volunteer hours applying for grants, the rest of us got out and raised money every way we could.”

There was an Ice Cream Fundae at Baker Park, complete with music, a parade, clown and juggler.

“At all our events, we asked for money and volunteers,” Steussy said. “Dick and Margaret Hakes, a retired couple, were in charge of finding us hundreds of volunteers to help with construction. At the Fundae, we were lucky enough to sign on Stephen Robinson, president of the homebuilders association.”

Meanwhile local businesses got in on the act. For example, Noble Romans offered a dollar for every pizza bought on certain days.

But appropriately, the effort to raise money for a new place children could play was also aided by an idea from a little girl named Polly.

A daughter of Randy and Liz Whitmer, Polly Whitmer inspired an event called “Polly’s Garage Sale.”

“She said to me ‘Mom, if we got a whole bunch of kids together and got our toys we don’t play with anymore in our garage, maybe we could raise some money for the playground,” Liz Whitmer remembered.

At the urging of her mother to “think big,” the toy sale soon evolved into a full-fledged community garage sale. It was held at Moose Lodge in New Castle.

But the F.U.N. Playground also came to be by those who thought small – and did it over and over and over again.

“We sold T-shirts,” Steussy added. “We got business sponsors and put our logo in their windows that read ‘Proud Sponsor of F.U.N. Playground.’ We had athletic events. We had a Longaberger Basket Day. We even had a Christmas party inviting people to donate the money they would have spent going to the party, then staying home for a quiet night with their families.

“My favorite fundraiser though was ‘Pennies from Heaven,” Steussy continued. “Organized by Janelle Conley, kids from all the elementary schools in town starting bringing in pennies. They would bring in jars. They would do chores. They would search under the sofas and car seats for more pennies.”

Steussy remembered student contributions ranged from three pennies to 3,000 of them.

“We kept track of which schools were bringing in the most pennies,” Steussy said. “Competition was fierce. As Ameriana Bank collected the pennies for us, we thought the bank might sink into the ground under the weight.”

It all culminated with “Pennies from Heaven Day” in which more than 300,000 pennies were brought to the Moose Lodge.

“That’s $3,000 in pennies,” Steussy said.

The exact total came to 309,872. Wilbur Wright students collected more than 20,000 of them, the top effort of local elementary schools.

Those pennies were well-spent, as the playground continues to bring joy today. Staying power of the F.U.N. Playground continues to speak volumes about the kind of community this is, Steussy said.

“It shows how much people care about New Castle,” Steussy said, “The love of community here that you’re not going to find in places like Indianapolis or Fishers.”

NEXT: A look back at five memorable days when F.U.N. was constructed, piece-by-piece and heart-to-heart. Community members can email their memories to dradford@thecouriertimes.com to be included in this series.