Lewis Griswold

Church builds neighborhood park on school property

Martha Felix, 13, right, kicks a soccer ball with Rafael Flores, left, and Jaden Garcia, center, at Houston Neighborhood Park.
Martha Felix, 13, right, kicks a soccer ball with Rafael Flores, left, and Jaden Garcia, center, at Houston Neighborhood Park. THE FRESNO BEE

Houston Neighborhood Park in north Visalia will open in August to serve one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

But it’s not a city park.

The park is a public-private project of Neighborhood Church and Visalia Unified School District on about 2.5 acres of district property next to Houston Elementary School.

It’s the school district’s only park and is unique because other parks in Visalia are city-owned or inside gated communities.

Three city parks are in the general area of the Houston neighborhood but are not within easy walking distance. The new park solves that problem.

“The most important thing is that it is close to this neighborhood,” said Antonia Leon, a mother of four children at Houston School. “The parks are far and this is close.”

The new park is almost complete, with a concrete walking track, benches, picnic tables, trash cans, trees and grass. A bonus is that the picnic tables are shaded under solar panels supplying electricity to the school.

Meanwhile, the playground equipment is on order.

Houston school employee Mary Novelo, who works with Spanish-speaking families, said the neighborhood is excited about the park.

“This is everything the community needs. It’s just wonderful,” she said. “It wouldn’t be possible without the help Neighborhood Church gave us.”

For nine years, church members have volunteered at Houston School, working with staff and parents on a weekly mentoring program, community service projects, monthly family events and special activities for children.

Stephanie Bartsch, a staff member at Neighborhood Church, has been working on the project for about three years. She has a master’s degree in social work from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Bartsch grew up in Visalia and has made a personal commitment to the Houston neighborhood by living there and learning conversational Spanish.

At a meeting of the Juntos parent-teacher group — Juntos means “together” in Spanish — she learned that parents wanted a neighborhood park so children could have a safe place to play.

The park will be closed during school hours.

Bartsch went to the city, where the staff said a lack of available property and funding made it difficult to build a new park, but noted that Houston School had the space.

She went to the school district and the school board voted to let a part of the Houston School property, already fenced off from the campus, be used as a park for 20 years.

Neighborhood Church, Juntos and others spread the word, and businesses, service clubs and individuals donated.

“We are $3,000 away from the goal” of $210,000, Bartsch said.

Leadership Visalia took on the park as its project and helped sell “fence bears” for $25 apiece, which have the donor’s name punched in a piece of metal shaped like a teddy bear.

450Number of “fence bears” sold

Visalia Adult School made 450 bears, which are now permanently attached to a fence at the park.

Houston students planted trees, held a walk-a-thon and addressed the Visalia City Council.

“We talked about raising money,” said Rosa Zazala, 10, now entering sixth grade. “They all said yes.”

The council approved $10,000 toward playground equipment.

A grand opening will be Sept. 19.

FULL STAFF: The Tulare County District Attorney’s Office has sworn in six new prosecutors, bringing the department to a full staff of 65 attorneys, District Attorney Tim Ward said.

The new prosecutors are Deborah Kwon, Laura Coey, Esther Han, April Holley, Keyana Jones and Vicente Reyes.

Also sworn in were supervising investigators Gregg White and Eric Velasquez.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold