Neighbors turn eyesore into place children can play

Visnu Sookhai, a senior research engineer at Post Foods in Battle Creek, passed the vacant lot every day on his way to work on Cliff Street. Filled with trash, overgrown with weeds, a magnet for crime, it was enough to make him want to turn his eyes in the other direction. But he didn’t. He looked. He looked long and hard. And he wasn’t the only one.

At the end of Cliff Street and alongside Main Street, the triangular lot had previously been dotted with crack houses and trash. On its other side, on 20 Newark Avenue, was Franklin Elementary School, with a small, cramped playground that allowed for barely enough room for the children to stretch their legs on recess.

It wasn’t the same elementary school Sookhai had attended as a child in the 1970s, but it was its newer namesake. "I went to the old Franklin School in the fourth grade," Sookhai recalls. "The original school was on Green Street. But it’s a tie to my past, to my childhood when my family moved to the United States from Trinidad. It makes me especially proud to be involved in The Franklin Project today."

Sookhai is one of about 20 people from Post involved in The Franklin Project. It is a project overseen by the Post Foundation of Battle Creek, or PFBC, and PFBC is under the umbrella of the Battle Creek Community Foundation (BCCF), with Brenda Hunt, president and CEO, at its head.

The blighted field was just down the street from Post, and so it was an obvious choice for the Post employees as a project, but they first needed to organize a foundation to oversee such projects. Dwight Carattini, senior production scheduling manager at Post, tells of a conversation he had with his Post colleague, Randy Yother, on a business trip.

"We were staying at a B&B, sitting on the porch and talking about how great it would be to bring back the Post Foundation. To do that, we needed support from the shop floor as well as from management, so when we got back to the plant, I went to talk to management and Randy went on the shop floor."

Carattini had seen a lot of changes at Post over his 30 years working there: one merger after another, changing headquarters from one city to another.

"No matter what, we wanted to keep the Post Foundation in Battle Creek, and so we turned to Brenda Hunt at BCCF to help us," says Carattini.

"The Post Foundation got lost in all those mergers and sales," Hunt agrees. "When they called us to help them get started again, BCCF was happy to do so. They were looking for projects to take on and decided to focus on Franklin Elementary."

Helping the community, in fact, is a Post tradition. Keith Cole, retired from Post since 2002 but still working with Post as a contractor, came on board as project manager for The Franklin Project. He’d spent more than 35 years with Post, and he knew the company’s history.

"C.W.  Post, the founder, was a Utopian," Cole says. "He built a Post neighborhood around the plant. His idea was that people could all live together and get along."

The PFBC steering committee began to meet in 2011, and the Post employees, along with partners from the Battle Creek Community Foundation, Battle Creek Public Schools, and the City of Battle Creek, put their heads and hearts together to develop The Franklin Project.

Cole says: "It started with giving the Franklin teachers supplies, then we asked them what else they would like. They said they could use more swings on the playground, so we bought two sets of swings. But then we realized what they need is an athletic field, a soccer field."

The steering committee wrote in their plans for The Franklin Project:

"Many families in the Franklin district are struggling to make ends meet, and the needs of children often have to take a back seat to putting food on the table. This project has the opportunity to help the youth of the community know that the people around them care and want to make a difference in their lives. Through the support of the schools, local government and local businesses, we can make a difference in the future of the children of the Franklin School that will improve the future of Battle Creek as well. The current empty lot is blight to the city of Battle Creek. Its run-down appearance seems to represent the sense of hopelessness that many of our families feel on a daily basis."

Phil Noakes, a senior plant engineer with more than 20 years at Post, was a member of the PFBC steering committee, and he coordinated work on The Franklin Project with the lead contractor, Hunter-Prell Company.

"I have two daughters, and I’ve assisted in coaching their soccer games," Noakes says. "I know how kids need a place to run around, to play an organized game. If you’re active doing something positive, you’re not as likely to get in trouble. So we brightened up an eyesore and we give the kids a place to play and keep busy."

Brightening up the eyesore required excavating and leveling the field, and trucking in about 2,000 square feet of topsoil donated by the City of Battle Creek. Post engineering expertise was applied to the field as it was hydro-seeded and goal posts installed. Fencing was added around the field. A gate opened the field directly to the Franklin Elementary School to give the children school-day access, but another gate to the neighborhood was unlocked after school hours to allow public access.

"Brenda Hunt came and did a review," says Carattini. "She said, this is very nice, but I think people would really like a pedestrian walkway. So we added a walkway along the fence. The whole project energized everybody."

According to Brenda Hunt of BCCF, a $100,000 project was made possible by not only Post donations, but funding from the Battle Creek Rotary Club, the Kellogg Foundation, and various other contributors.

The project was completed in 2012, and on opening day, the children of Franklin Elementary School, recently renamed the Post-Franklin Elementary School, poured out onto their two new soccer fields.

"I drive by on my way to work now," Visnu Sookhai says with a smile, "and I see kids playing out there. When you support your community, and you give kids a chance and improve their school, well, the biggest bang for your buck is always education. I just hope these kids grow up someday and pay it forward."

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay 
Signup for Email Alerts