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Houston high school coach helps turn former drug haven into green space

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Ketelsen Elementary, of the Near Northside, partners with community members and non-profit organizations to debut the reconstruction of a neighborhood SPARK during a dedication ceremony Wednesday.

The SPARK School Park Program, an organization operating out of the City of Houston’s Mayor’s office, began in 1983 as a way to bridge the gap between public schools and the community by establishing neighborhood parks on public school campuses.

Located on the corner of Quitman and North Main, Ketelsen sits in the heart of the Near Northside, an area currently being redeveloped by the expansion of the Metro light rail.

SPARK dedication ceremony

Leaders in community development, Avenue CDC, Local Initiatives Support Corporation -LISC GO Neighborhoods and SPARK School Park Program have joined together to rebuild an area that was once considered a drug haven for homeless people into a green space that promotes culture, health and overall safety.

Coach Gerardo DeLeon of Davis high school and former teacher at Ketelsen said drug activity and overnight camping forced the school to close the original SPARK.

“People were constructing tents over the playground area to do drugs and sleep,” said DeLeon who is a member of GO-Neighborhoods Safety.

After the park was closed, DeLeon decided to join LISC GO-Neighborhoods to bring awareness of the drug situation. Together,the group performed a safety audit which eventually led to the plans to organize the reconstruction of the park.

“Our priority is finding ways to better improve the neighborhood and educating the public to make them aware of safety issues,” said DeLeon.

We want to go beyond your basic park DeLeon said. The new SPARK includes an existing softball field, new playground equipment, walking trail, new benches and displays student-created artwork.

The dedication ceremony was organized by Kathleen Ownby, Executive Director of the SPARK Program. Ketelsen’s students hosted fundraisers to contribute to the project and as a result, raised over $7000 this year. The PTA committee held regular fundraisers after school during 2011-2012 to spread awareness and raise funds for the new park. Other funding includes $5000 from GO-Neigborhoods, $5000 from Fiesta, $15000 from Jeff Davis HS and $75000 from the City of Houston and Community Development Department.

Local volunteers will maintain the SPARK by opening and closing it every day and reporting activity that compromises children’s safety.

DeLeon said the overall goal for this community is to make the Northside area a “great place to live, work and raise a family” while preserving the area’s cultural and historic diversity.

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