The playground that currently stands at 660 Winchester Ave. in New Haven has fallen into disrepair. The gate of the chain-link fence that surrounds it is bound in chains with a sign that reads “NOTICE- Playground is Closed.” The blue rubber surface covering the concrete is faded and peeling, and the yellow paint on the metal posts is chipped.
The Kathy Carroll Community Playground committee envisions something different at the home of Christian Community Action (CCA): deep purple tunnels and slides, climbing structures and even a swing set, the perfect haven for the children of Newhallville to safely play.
It’s a project the late Kathleen “Kathy” Carroll, PhD, who supported CCA for decades, would be proud of.
Carroll’s relationship with CCA stands as the cornerstone for the planned playground on Winchester Avenue, and it’s what brought friends, family, colleagues, and community members together Thursday, May 19 for a fundraising kickoff event, on what would have been Carroll’s 64th birthday.
Music from the Puerto Rican bomba group Proyecto Cimarron echoed through the neighborhood, inviting curious neighbors in. Children ran across the grass to check out the New Haven Fire Department’s parade engine in the parking lot while adults reviewed a poster with the mockup design for the playground and gathered in groups, chattering excitedly about the project and sharing memories of Carroll.
After a playground blessing, a few speeches, and a reading of the City of New Haven Mayor’s Proclamation Recognizing Dr. Carroll’s contributions to the city, those gathered joined in for a rousing rendition of “happy birthday” to commemorate Carroll’s day before enjoying complimentary sandwiches from Jersey Mike’s Subs representatives, who traveled to the playground kickoff from New Jersey, as well as cupcakes donated by Stop and Shop.
“It’s really amazing,” said Carroll’s daughter, Kate, as she observed the scene. “She loved kids and she loved this place, and she just would have loved this party.”
Natalie White, Carroll’s stepdaughter, concurred.
“Kathy was just a wonderful, fun human being who started every day in a great, fun way. She used to always say, ‘This is so great! This is so great!’” White said, exclaiming and waving her arms in imitation of Carroll. “I feel like she would be here today, saying ‘this is so great!’.”
“She would just be over the moon that kids are going to be playing here. Her favorite thing was spending time with kids and it’s just such a wonderful tribute. I’m so proud to have known and loved Kathy and to be part of this.”
At the time of her death, Carroll was the Albert E. Kent Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, and the director of the Psychosocial Research in the Division on Addictions. She was an internationally-renowned clinical scientist who made seminal contributions to improving treatments for addiction.
Carroll maintained a relationship with CCA throughout her life and contributed regularly to the organization through efforts to provide school clothing, Christmas gifts, and Easter baskets for children living in emergency housing. The partnership meant so much to her that Carroll donated to CCA from her hospital bed just days before she died.
“It really underscores the importance of community in her life, but also how we want to keep that going,” said Ayana Jordan, MD, PhD, assistant professor adjunct in the Department of Psychiatry, addiction psychiatrist at NYU Langone Health and mentee of Carroll’s, who served as the emcee for the May 19 event.
Brian Kiluk, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Psychotherapy Development Center, was also a mentee of Carroll’s and started his career at Yale in her lab. On the day of his interview in the year 2000, he recalled entering the lab to see everyone at work compiling and wrapping the Christmas gifts for CCA. It’s something that set the tone for what to expect should he get the position, he said.
“She was all about giving back and inclusivity, and she modeled bringing everyone together,” Kiluk said of Carroll.
“It is that spirit of inclusivity that has propelled this community project,” said Yale statistician Charla Nich, who worked with Carroll for over 30 years. “When Kathy died, her friends and family from across the country donated over $30,000 to the playground effort. We thought that was amazing – and when we did our research, we realized Newhallville needed more – and we needed to work together to build the best, safest, and most fun playground we could.”
Nich, together with Yale employees Joanne Corvino and Theresa Babuscio, who worked with Kathy for a combined 55 years, helped form the Kathy Carroll Playground Committee. Kathy’s daughter Kate Chivian, CCA Director Bonita Grubbs, and Kathy’s good friend Jen Bardsley are committee members also.
The Kathy Carroll Playground Committee knew they needed input from Newhallville to make sure the playground made sense for the families that call it home. They reached out to Community Placemaking Engagement Network (CPEN) Organizer Doreen Abubakar, who joined the committee and contacted the Newhallville Community Action Team and local Alder for input. CPEN also went door to door, canvassing neighbors to assess interest in the new playground and invite them to the Playground kickoff to provide design feedback.
After the committee researched playground builders, they decided to partner with The Where Angels Play Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 that has gone on to build 58 playgrounds across the world.
The Where Angels Play Foundation interviews families and friends of people who have passed to determine whether they can provide their services.
Bill Lavin, Where Angels Play founder, said: “A quick review of Dr. Carroll’s life work underscores an incredible contribution to science and the study of addiction and the societal hardships of the countless people. The impact she has made in her field is immeasurable. It wasn’t, however, until I had the opportunity to meet with her family and the community of New Haven that I began to appreciate the gigantic heart and selflessness of this woman. Through the actions of all those who love her and refuse to have her amazing legacy be forgotten I now feel a strong connection to this remarkable Angel. Kathy and her playground project are a perfect fit for The Where Angels Play Foundation and I look forward to honoring her memory while assisting her as she puts smiles on the faces of the children she loves so dear.”
The total cost of the Kathy Carroll Playground will be $280,000, half of which is labor. Where Angels Play will donate the labor, meaning the committee must raise $140,000. The committee has raised nearly $60,000 from individual donations – and another $22,000 from community foundations (Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, United Way of Greater New Haven, First Congregational Church of Guilford, and Yale Community for New Haven Fund).
In the next six months, the Kathy Carroll Playground Committee will continue to seek sponsorship and grants to raise the final $60,000.
“It’s a huge undertaking but one I am so proud to be a part of. Honoring an amazing person like Kathy with this playground also gives us an opportunity to enhance the CCA property and the neighborhood, a win-win on so many levels. In the spirit of Kathy Carroll, we know we can do this,” said committee co-chair Jen Bardsley.
Corvino added: “Now more than ever, it is so important for the university to partner with our neighbors to build together the community that we envision is best for all of us. Once again, Kathy’s name will be attached to a fantastic and joyous project rooted in hard work and belief in equity and inclusion.”
The final task will be “the community build,” which will involve Where Angels Play volunteers from around the country, city of New Haven firefighters, Newhallville neighbors, Yale employees, and Kathy’s family and friends working side by side to uproot the existing and unsafe playground- and replace it with a more fitting piece.
When complete, it will be Ward 20’s first community playground, said New Haven Alder Devin Avshalom-Smith, who represents the neighborhood on the city’s board of alders.
“This is monumental and really touches my heart,” Avshalom-Smith said. “When good people are working together, the universe somehow aligns and brings our interests together, and here our interest is community building.”
The new playground will complement a soon to re-open “moving to work” program called New H.O.P.E. (Housing, Opportunity, Purpose, Expectations) that is a partnership of CCA and the Elm City Communities/Housing Authority of New Haven. The building has 18 fully furnished one-, two-, and three-bedroom units and is currently accepting applications.
The Rev. Bonita Grubbs, executive director of CCA, a nonprofit that has been serving families facing housing insecurities for 55 years, said New H.O.P.E. and the Kathy Carroll Community Playground will reinvigorate the community.
“This will be a landmark,” Grubbs said. “A place of peace. A place of celebration.”
Tax deductible contributions to the Kathy Carroll Playground Fund on GoFundMe may be made online or by mailing a check to CCA at 168 Davenport Ave., New Haven 06519.