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Reopening of park a true 'blessing'

Rebuilt community park, gym brings joy to Louisiana residents.


Residents in St. Bernard Parish will celebrate Saturday when a community park reopens after being severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The community is scheduled to gather at St. Bernard Community Park and Edward A. Kattengell Center in Arabi for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, followed by activities for children and adults throughout the day. Events will include a shrimp boil and cookout, tours of the new facility, soccer, basketball and volleyball games and an evening boxing exhibition with matches featuring local amateurs.

The disaster relief charity Operation Blessing and local charity organization City of Hope are running the grand opening after having raised funds and rebuilding the park.

"This has been a tremendous joy to me," said the Rev. Randy Millet, director of City of Hope and pastor of Adullam Christian Fellowship Church. "Everyone is extremely excited that this gym is being restored."

Millet has lived in St. Bernard Parish his entire life. He said the Kattengell Center - which he refers to as 'the gym' - is a community centerpiece and was the first facility like it ever built in the parish. It was home to a well-known boxing team, as well as basketball and volleyball courts where children and adults played.

When Katrina struck, the facility was heavily damaged and many thought it would never be restored. Millet said that notion changed when Operation Blessing came knocking.

"We were looking for a community-level project," said Jody Herrington, director of U.S. disaster relief for Operation Blessing. "We were out here rebuilding and gutting homes and doing residential things, but we realized that it's equally important to rebuild parks and restore safe places for kids to play."

When Operation Blessing asked Millet about a project, he immediately thought of St. Bernard Park and its gym.

"My heart was breaking for the children in this area and I wanted to help them," Millet said. "We wanted to restore this so that those of us who have lived there all of our lives could see this come back alive and bring hope to our community. It will bring joy to our children to play again and it'll bring healing to those who have played in that gym in the past."

Operation Blessing staff members first entered the damaged facility in December 2006 and saw not much had been done since Katrina flooded it with 9 feet of water. Mold covered the walls. In February, the rebuild project was launched and teams of volunteers went to work. Operation Blessing funded the entire project, but workers from near and far helped.

The new gym has a weight room, volleyball and basketball courts, restrooms, a concession stand and new sports equipment. The park has three new soccer fields, a new jungle gym and a half-mile bike path.

Herrington said community members stopped by every day during the rebuild to express their gratitude.

"People stopped in all the time - young and old - with tears in their eyes," she said. "They are so thankful because no one thought it would be rebuilt. They all have stories from when they were growing up."

Millet said he was happy that children in the parish will also be able to build those types of memories.

"This will bring the community together," he said. "Nothing brings joy to parents like seeing their children play."

Millet said Saturday's celebration will be another positive step in the parish's recovery from Katrina. Parish churches and community organizations are still helping hundreds of people repair their homes and City of Hope continues to feed 500 to 700 people every other day. The park reopening is a bright spot, he said, something that will continue to unite the community.

"I've watched our community go from total devastation to the beginning of signs of recovery," Millet said.

"I've seen the joy of those who will be coaching soccer, boxing and those who will be helping in the different areas at the gym," he added. "I see the joy coming back into their lives and hearts. There will be an incredible amount of joy on opening day. The community is really starting to come together and the unity is being formed. This is another step in the uniting of our people."

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