Never underestimate the power of a playground.

In September, developers, designers, builders, philanthropists and community members gathered in West Baltimore to celebrate the completion of the Excel Academy Family Center and the adjacent Poppleton Family Center Playground. A Neighborhood Zones project of United Way of Central Maryland, the center offers free, quality daycare to Excel Academy students who are parents of infants or toddlers. Meanwhile, the playground provides a fun, safe oasis where children can play.

Photos courtesy of United Way of Central Maryland.

“This is a great program and a great opportunity to help kids who are probably in a tough moment of their lives,” said Mark Wendell, Senior Manager of Design and Development at Corporate Office Properties Trust.

COPT donated $25,000 towards playground construction costs and also volunteered as owner representative for the playground and daycare center construction.

“It’s stressful to have a baby, especially at such a young age. If a teenager is about to have a child and doesn’t have access to daycare, there is a higher likelihood that they will drop out of school.” Wendell said.

Nationwide, the high school graduation rate among teenage parents is just 40 percent. However, the United Way – which previously opened a similar facility, the Ben Center, at Benjamin Franklin High School in Baltimore – has already shown how such services can benefit young parents and their families. A survey of 172 families served by a United Way family center showed that 70 percent of teenage parents went on to graduate from high school.

“We really want to help change the odds for young people, for children and for families,” Heather Chapman, Vice President of United Way Neighborhood Zones, said in a video about the Ben Center and Excel/Poppleton center.

The centers, Chapman said, do more than enable parents to finish high school and help them learn how to be good parents. “We know without a doubt that early childhood education, that investment up front pays off. Your means and your zip code should not determine whether you have access to high quality education and childcare.”

COPT, which had supported the creation of the Ben Center and was impressed by its success, was excited to support the Poppleton project, Wendell said.

“University of Maryland Baltimore and the University of Maryland Medical System partnered with United Way on this project and steered them in the direction of Poppleton,” he said. “It is among the city’s most under-resourced neighborhoods. It ranks near the bottom in almost all measures – social capital, education, neighborhood quality, public health and general safety. The shocking statistics are that 59 percent of children in Poppleton live below the poverty line and the median household income in the area is only $20,000.”

The United Way childcare facilities, he added, “impact only a small percentage of the high school community, but it impacts them in such a large way,” often enabling parents to pursue vocational or college education, land jobs and start careers.

That impact starts with a simple daycare center and a playground.

Photos courtesy of United Way of Central Maryland.

At Excel Academy, Plano-Coudon Construction spent 12 weeks gutting an unused, 4,500-square-foot wing which previously housed an ROTC center, music room and other classroom space, said Chris Cortolillo, Project Foreman. Crews installed all new building systems in the wing and completely new interiors. Working with a landscape designer and multiple subcontractors, Plano-Coudon also created the playground and overcame the project’s largest challenge, namely extensive soil contamination onsite which required remediation work and the installation of a concrete cap beneath the playground site.

“It was a very challenging site,” Wendell said. “There were electrical switch gears and transformers on site which limited our space. In the past, the site housed either a gas station or a car lot. When the results of the soils tests came back, they found heavy contamination that had to coordinate with [the Maryland Department of Environment] to do a lot of soil remediation.”

That challenging site, however, ultimately became a glorious playground.

“We have artificial turf throughout the majority of the playground so kids have a safe, soft surface where they can run and crawl and play,” Wendell said. “There is an abundance of landscaping that creates this mini oasis where kids can feel comfortable and safe in their neighborhood. Then there is also the fun stuff. There are little grass tunnels that they can crawl through, places where kids can ride on boxes or play on teeter totters, and there’s a chalkboard so teachers can take their students outside and maybe even have an outdoor class.”

COPT is now working on constructing a third daycare and playground (located in Columbia) for United Way.