$6,500.

That’s about how much Sharon Zook still needs to completely refurbish the outdoor basketball court at the South Sixth St. playground, at the northeast corner of Elm St. in the city.

The money is for a cause that’s dear to a lot of Lebanon County residents’ hearts.

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A sign posted near the South Sixth St. playground.

“I think we just have to make more people aware of (the South Sixth St. Playground),” said Zook, the president of the South Sixth St. Playground Association. “There are a lot of people who grew up at this playground and have seen the value of what playgrounds provide to an urban area. Besides, basketball is really big in the Lebanon area. Basketball is really big at Lebanon (High) and Cedar Crest, both with boys and girls.”

“Basketball is important in Lebanon the same way it’s important in all urban areas,” Zook added. “Basketball is a game that doesn’t require a lot of space to play. In the city, it’s a game that can be played in a relatively small space. Lebanon has turned out some decent players. And here’s the other thing, Lebanon is becoming more diverse.”

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One of the basketball nets in the South Sixth St. playground in need of repair.

Zook has estimated that it will take approximately $65,000 to renovate the basketball court at the South Sixth St. playground. Over the past few years, through a Marcellus Shale grant, a grant from the local hotel tax, and savings and other money that the South Sixth St. Playground Association acquired for the project, Zook had raised about $45,000 towards that goal.

That was until recently when Lebanon native and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh CEO and President Mark Sevco stepped up with a matching donation of $10,000. Sevco told Zook that he would donate $10,000 toward the restoration project if Zook could come up with the final $10,000, of which Zook has already gotten $3,500 in personal donations.

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That left just short of seven thousand dollars to go.

Sharon Zook at the South Sixth St. playground.

“It’s in pretty shabby shape,” said Zook, of the double basketball court. “There are cracks in the asphalt. It’s not up to safety standards. The lighting doesn’t work anymore. It’s pretty hard to use it the way it is. People are so desperate for things like basketball that they’ll come in, but they can’t play a game. The kids are kind of making it work, but the next closest net is more than a mile away.”

“What needs to be done is that the whole area needs to be excavated, because it’s just not right,” added Zook. “The old asphalt needs to be dug out. It’s going to be a double court, but right now it’s facing the wrong direction and kids find it hard to play there because of the sun. With just the street lighting, it’s really dark, which you shouldn’t have in a city.”

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Now a resident of Pittsburgh, Sevco grew up a few blocks from the South Sixth St. playground. He approached Zook with the idea of accelerating the fundraising project because, to him, the playground represented a haven during a difficult time in his teenage years when he lost his father to a work accident.

Another basketball net in the South Sixth St. playground to be replaced.

Sevco has requested that the refurbished court be dedicated to the memory of his departed father.

“We need $6,500, and it looks like it’s going to happen,” said Zook. “Mark has come forward with the matching donation because he grew up there. He’s told me that the playground served as his base zone and provided support for him during a difficult time in his life. It’s kind of come full circle, with what the playground has meant to him. Kids need structure and that support when school is not in session.”

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“Any time you have structured activities, it keeps people out of trouble, especially in a city,” Zook continued. “When kids are engaged in sports, they tend to focus more on academics. We have opportunities for little kids at the playground, but after 13 or 14, they sort of age out. With that age group, they have to go look for other activities. We need this. In the long term, basketball is a good structured activity for a wide range of ages.”

The land that the South Sixth St. playground and its basketball court are situated on was purchased in 1929 for $1,000. While the playground itself was renovated a few years ago, the last time the basketball court received any major attention may have been in the 1960s or ’70s.

The basketball court has been in disrepair for most of this century.

President of the South Sixth St. Playground Association at the playground.

“I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, and the court has always been in bad shape,” said the 51-year-old Zook, who resides just a few houses from the playground. “The city used to fund it, but now it has greater needs for its money, and the money didn’t channel through. I never could get any financial support from the city because other groups were screaming louder. I didn’t want to sink money into a temporary ship.”

“Yeah, it’s been frustrating,” continued Zook. “I’ve been discouraged because I didn’t see how we were going to get to the finish line. I would get hope, but then it seemed like the goalposts were being moved. I’ve wanted to see this playground fixed up for quite some time. I would just fix things, but there are limits to things I can fix. I’m a believer that you try to make the neighborhood you live in better. We need a safe place for kids to play.”

Another sign posted near the South Sixth St. playground.

The way Zook sees it, playgrounds are essential elements of city neighborhoods. Refurbishing the South Sixth St. playground’s basketball court will just make that part of the city a better place to live.

“We’re just this little playground organization,” said Zook. “We’ve got to get real money in our hands. These commitments have to come forward to get started. We have to have all the money in hand first. We need to raise the rest of the money. There’s no way around it. The money always holds you up. It always has.”

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“I’d like this to be a story of hope,” concluded Zook. “That no matter what the situation is, we still support each other and that we can create spaces where people can bond and become friends. Playgrounds have always been places that have created the cohesion that a neighborhood needs to function. That playground experience becomes greater than life.”

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In this instance, money can buy happiness.

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To donate, contact Sharon Zook via email.


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