Soon, Earlimart kids will be able to run, explore and play in their new park. It has taken about a decade for this community’s dream to become a reality.
The community of 10,000, in the southern-most part of Tulare County, does not garner a lot of attention. The most notorious event in its history is that the Dalton Gang robbed a bank there in the 1890’s.
Residents want to change that.
Several years ago, a committee was formed to investigate and discover healthier lifestyles including eating and exercise, said Abigail Solis, president of the Earlimart School Board.
The committee was called PARRK (Physical Activity Really Rocks).
“During that time is when we learned about the grant opportunity to apply for a park,” she said, “which we thought was perfectly in line with what we were trying to do.
“Really there was no safe, green space for kids to play and community residents to go, to be healthy.”
The schools do have areas and playground equipment, but there wasn’t a park, she added.
“When we started mentioning it to the people,” committee member Domingo Trevino said, “we kept telling them we’re getting a park, we’re getting a park, and they would just say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.’
“As the years went by everybody kept asking, ‘where’s the park?’ and I would say, ‘well, it’s coming.’”
Trevino has lived in the community for 57 years. A veteran of the US Armed Forces and a former commander for the American Legion, Trevino and his family have always been involved in the local community, he said. “When we started talking about a park, we couldn’t find a place. Out of the blue someone said, what about that corner by the elementary school – that corner has just been sitting there for 20 years or more.”
It was a vacant lot, that had only been used once or twice a year when the carnival come to town, Solis said.
The approximate four acres of park lies on school district property. The land had been reserved for further school development, however, the need for a park took over.
“My own opinion is that if it hadn’t been for the school board, we wouldn’t have gotten it done,” Trevino said. “I think they really went out of their way to help us build this park.”
The school district, by itself, did not qualify for the grant. The county stepped in to help.
The combined effort of the school board and the County of Tulare, in a Joint Powers Agreement, achieved the state-funded grant, Solis said.
Through Proposition 84, the Statewide Park Program, Earlimart received $2,153,900.
“Supervisor [Pete] Vander Poel really helped us out,” Trevino said. “He was right on top of everything.”
Working together, the county and the school district, is when it really started to work out, he said.
“People didn’t have any faith – every politician would say, ‘we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that’ and by the time their time was over, a new one would come in and say, ‘well I don’t know anything about that.’ We had to start all over again.”
April Martinez, who has lived in Earlimart for more than a decade, is also involved in the PARRK committee and is active in the community.
“We started learning a lot,” she said, “like where we can get healthy foods and educating us about how other small communities around us – like Richgrove – how they got their park.”
She, too, heard comments, “we’ll never get a park here – we’ve been trying that for years – we’re never going to get one.”
But they were encouraged by others, including Susan Elizabeth from the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program (CCROPP), who told them, “you’ve got to keep trying, stick with this, you guys will.”
Founded in 2005, CCROPP’s mission is, “combating obesity and improving health in California’s San Joaquin Valley or ‘Central Valley.’” Elizabeth, and others, continually met with the Earlimart PARRK committee to aide in its efforts.
“Her [Elizabeth’s] job was to pull us together and let us know what we can do, as residents,” Martinez said.
This lead to an Earlimart signature drive to express the desire for a park. And the forward motion to its development.
Martinez’ daughter, Marissa Carrasco, 12, said the park is “amazing – you actually have some place to be [after school]. There are a lot of drugs and bad things out there, and so you have more things to do than just being on the streets,” she said.
The park is almost complete.
“In Earlimart there is a moratorium on sewer and water connections – we’re not able to build any new housing right now – but we had to work with the local PUD (public utility district) to get them to grant us water, so we can water this park,” Solis said.
The school district is dedicated to the park. It has hired a new grounds person specifically for care of the park and pays the insurance.
“That’s an additional expense we are taking on,” Solis said. “That’s how committed we are to this park and this community.”
The PARRK committee sought input from the community as to what was needed in a park – basketball courts, soccer fields, jungle gym and other playground equipment. There is also a walking track throughout the park for use by all ages. There is a plethora of benches, picnic tables and barbecues for family outings. The park has lighting for evening and nighttime use.
“We made a map – an ideal of the park,” Martinez said. “And that is what we got – we made something that looked pretty much like this. I was so amazed.”
“This is a whole new thing for Earlimart,” Solis said. “We’ve never been able to do that here. It is all about their vision and what they wanted in this park.”
Once the suggestions were in and plans drawn up – the bids came in a bit higher than the grant afforded. Not wanting to compromise, the school district chipped in an additional $115,000 and the county $500,000 to realize the inspired dream.
For example, rather than reducing the quality of the basketball court paving and fencing, they stuck to their guns for what they wanted with courts that can be converted to volleyball and tennis facilities.
As for the play equipment, “It’s a Cadillac-model of a jungle gym,” said Michelle Ramirez, a director in the Earlimart School District. “We used to have to go to Delano, or Pixley to play.
“I’ve been a principal and a teacher in a lot of schools – this to me, is an elevated [top notch] jungle gym. Just the ropes like this – it’s much more safe – the climbing the kids can do – it really encourages a lot of physical activity,” she said.
Joel Roman stopped in, with his eyes upon the soccer fields. The former professional mid-fielder and forward, is now a youth soccer coach and league organizer. He is sure the fields will be put to good use and he’s already planning on how he can organize them for the children of his league. Soccer is year-round in the area.
Roman’s wife, Blanca, and their children visited with him–eight-year-old Alex and 10-year-old Genesis, tried out the jungle gym. They both play soccer as well.
“When I was a kid, there was nothing like this,” Roman said. “It’s better for the community here – you can your keep kids safe and off the street.”
The park is ready to open; however, the community continues to wait for the grand opening while awaiting a shade structure. It will cover all of the play equipment area, a total of 65×109 feet. The hope is that the structure will be installed in mid-November and the grand opening will follow.
A school art teacher and some of her students have designed artwork that will be mounted on the underside of the shade – a personal touch, which will last for years to come.
A benefit to the delay in opening, is that “it allows the plants to grow and establish themselves,” said Supervisor Vander Poel.
Vander Poel further relayed the commitment of the county to the new park, having put $1/2 million of general funds into it beyond the grant, when the bid came in higher than the grant. The county is also committed to roadwork following the shade structure addition, to the roads around the park area including work on the gutters and addition of sidewalks.