New swings, picnic tables and barbecue grills have been shining like beacons at the town’s only park, attracting children eager to play and families ready to relax.
Earlimart Rotary Park finally opened Wednesday to the delight of children, parents and community leaders in a town that has relatively few amenities.
“I’m happy,” said Julian Hernandez, a fourth grader who ran to the play structure with his 7-year-old brother Marcus. “We have a baby sister, now we have a swing for her.”
Larry Camacho, 44, a sheriff’s sergeant who lives in the unincorporated community and has a 7-year-old daughter, said the park is sure to be packed on summer evenings because it’s next to a baseball diamond that hosts youth baseball five nights a week.
“On game night, everybody can barbecue and watch the game,” he said.
To pay for the new park, the Earlimart Rotary Club reached out to agribusiness for financial help.
Munger Farms in Delano, a grower of blueberries, almonds and pistachios, donated $250,000, and Skip Barwick’s Daro Commodities fertilizer company in Tulare donated the soil.
No public money went into the project, said Tulare County Supervisor Pete Vander Poel.
“It’s completely a community effort, and that’s kind of cool to see,” he said.
Marie Macedo, the human resources director at Earlimart School District and a club member, said the Rotary Club took on the project because families need a place to play in a town where 40% of the population is under 18.
“Earlimart has a population of 8,000 people,” Macedo said. “They deserve a park. Parents can talk to each other and students can come and play.”
The U.S. Census reports that 45.6% of Earlimart residents live below the poverty level, while the kindergarten through eighth grade school district said more than 90% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch based on family income.
Terri Hernandez, mother of Julian and Marcus, said the park gives the family options.
“I like that it’s close to home,” she said. “If grandma wants to take them, it’s no problem.”
Until now, a visit to a park meant a drive “to Delano or sometimes Tulare,” said Faustina Magana of Earlimart, the grandmother of a 3-year old boy and 6-year-old girl.
Earlimart is on Highway 99 in southern Tulare County and is surrounded by vineyards. Many residents work on farms and at packing houses.
The town has two baseball diamonds, basketball hoops, a pool open to the public in summer and an all-weather track at the middle school.
There’s a market but no major grocery store, the newest commercial development has a Dollar Store and an auto parts store, dirt sidewalks are everywhere, stray dogs are the norm, many homes are fronted by chain link fences, and trees are trimmed for maximum shade in summer.
Some worry that the park will get tagged with graffiti, said Tulare County Sheriff’s Lt. Mark Gist, commander of the Pixley substation.
“I really don’t want the park to become ugly or a nuisance,” he said. If a problem develops, “we’ll jump on it and investigate it.”
It’s up to the people to protect the park, said barber Joe Cardona.
“We have to be the eyes and ears of the community,” he said.
About 100 people attended the 7:30 a.m. dedication ceremony.
Pastor Andy Valdez of The Vineyard church prayed for “a safe place” of unity and fellowship, and the Earlimart Middle School band played the national anthem.
The park was established by about 25 years ago on lands owned by the school district and the Earlimart Veterans Memorial District, but fell into disrepair. About all that was left when the project started two years ago was an old jungle gym and some tables.
The generosity of David Munger of Munger Farms made the park possible, Earlimart School District Superintendent Sandra Rivera said: “Without him, we would not be here today,” she said.
Munger did not attend the ceremony, but Cliff Woolley, chief administrative officer at the company, said his boss, the son of impoverished immigrants, “consistently said ‘do it right.’ ”
The donation paid for a play structure, swings, trees, irrigation system, cement walkways, sidewalks, picnic tables, barbecue grills, benches, an awning and labor.
Michael Maldonado, 33, who grew up in Earlimart, designed the new park. He was tapped for the job by architect Danny Ordiz of Bakersfield, who also grew up in Earlimart.
“It’s really good to be able to give something back,” Maldonado said.