The parents, educators and civic leaders of Passaic, New Jersey agree: The city is in desperate need of a community playground. The children have said so.
“The biggest problem for kids in this area is space, a place to run around and just have fun with their friends and family,” said sixth-grader Selena Romero.
“Where I live, there's only a bunch of stones, not that much grass and all,” added schoolmate Nidhi Patel.
As part of TODAY's Shine a Light series, a campaign to support worthy causes, Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie are raising money to find kids safe places to play — including those in Passaic. They’ve partnered with the nonprofit organization Kaboom to help convert abandoned lots into a space where children can exercise both their bodies and their imaginations.
“As a child you're excited to go outside and play. Our children don't have that excitement because they know when they leave school, most likely they are going home,” said the vice principal of William B. Cruise Memorial School.
Without a creative and constructive outlet like a playground, children are likely to turn their pent-up energy elsewhere.
“I've seen the kids jump from roof to roof and fighting and arguing,” said parent Michele Marin.
Passaic police officer Jabo Lewis has seen worse.
“They end up hanging out on the streets late at night, hanging on corners committing crimes, and gangs,” Lewis, who grew up in the town, said. “When I was a kid growing up here we congregated, we played here. Now it's barren, nothing to play with or play on.”
Matt and Savannah recently joined New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and other area leaders at a ceremony in Passaic to announce plans for a new community park, which Booker called “a game change for a neighborhood.”
“It’s profound when you put a green space, a play space in a neighborhood. It literally changes the spirit of a community and brings the community together,” Booker said.
The plans have been set, and now Matt and Savannah will help to make the park a reality. They’re asking anyone interested in contributing to the effort to log onto www.crowdrise.com/mattandsavannah.
"It's not a luxury," Savannah said. "It's actually a necessity for little kids to be able to get out — and to feel safe and learn."
Young Javier Lopez, who said he rarely gets to go outside "because my mother doesn't think it's that safe," hopes that will change once the new playground is complete.
"Playing is the thing that kids do the most. The more they do that, the happier they get," he said.
Thanks to the Carmax Foundation and TODAY sponsor Microsoft for supporting this effort.
Tell us on social media how you're pitching in, using the hashtag #ShineALight.