Ariel, 7, tests the obstacle-detecting abilities of a robot built by Garfield Square's robotics students. Photo by Laura Wenus

Garfield Square on Sunday was alive with all sorts of wholesome, informative, constructive activities, of varying popularity with the kids brought to the park to enjoy them. But the fact that they were there at all, laughing and throwing tantrums, asking for stickers and getting face painted, marks the success of a years-long police program.

PG&E’s Ron Delucchi demonstrates the dangers of getting between electricity and the ground. Photo by Laura Wenus

“The bathrooms here used to be a place no child should ever have to go in,” said Chief Greg Suhr, remembering a time when Garfield Park was substantially less appealing. “This was a park we constantly tried to turn around.”

The resource fair, put on by SFPD and various other public services organizations including Rec and Park and PG&E, had a cheerful atmosphere. Suhr said it was good to see the turnout, but the really good thing was its normalcy.

College students working with the Garden Project hand out free plants to neighbors at the Resource Fair. Photo by Laura Wenus

“What’s really cool is that that soccer field and the swing set don’t look different any other day,” he said.

Cathrine Sneed agreed. She said the police had turned the park from a haven for drugs, alcohol, and violence into a place suitable for children.

Sneed is no stranger to the effects of crime. She heads the Sherrif’s Department’s Garden Project, where prisoners head to a field to learn a useful trade, keep themselves occupied, and improve their chances of starting fresh. But she also takes a preventive approach to crime: With her were several young men, who handed out potted strawberry, chard, and sunflower plants for anyone to take with them. They were veterans of the Earth Stewards Garden Project, a program that offers at-risk youth something constructive to do with their time, and more importantly, that pays.

 “We know that plants connect people, plants engage people, and for us, plants employ people,” Sneed said.

 Sneed and SFPD have coordinated a garden club for the park with the help of Officer Alex Medina, a self-declared gardening enthusiast.

Sisters Ariela, 5, and Araceli, 9, tackle the climbing wall together. Photo by Laura Wenus

“I would love nothing more than to have dirty knees and dirty fingernails on all my days off,” Medina said.

But the gardeners’ hope is that children will be encouraged to actively take part in their nutrition if they have a better understanding of where food comes from – plus, they’ll be outside and active rather than immobilized in front of a screen.

Beyond Garfield Square, the program is hiring its summer interns – 14 to 18-year-olds are encouraged to apply to be Earth Stewards and learn about sustainability, help improve the city’s landscapes and bring plants to underserved areas, as well as, in Sneed’s words, “learn how to work.”

Firefighter Abigail Readdie demonstrates how to shut off the gas on a residential supply line. Photo by Laura Wenus

That was the fair’s unifying theme: Give people something productive to do. Help them help themselves.

Over at the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) table, firefighter Abigail Readdie demonstrated how to shut off a gas valve in case of emergency, and handed out schedules for local NERT training. It’s not just for would-be heroes, she said — even those who aren’t necessarily trying to volunteer to save others should go through training, because in a major disaster, firefighters will be overwhelmed and whoever can help themselves reduces their workload.

“If you can help take care of yourself, that’s one less victim,” Readdie said.

NERT preparedness classes, which include hands on practice like starting and then extinguishing a fire, are available in both English and Spanish.

PG&E’s Ron Delucchi demonstrates the dangers of getting between electricity and the ground. Photo by Laura Wenus

The Police Athletic League, too, was there to give at-risk youth an alternative to hanging out on the streets. The PAL organizes regular sports events and classes around the city, but also has pickup games at Garfield Square every week, where kids play kickball and soccer with officers.

Tommy, held by his father Bill Stone, examines his favorite police horse, Bubba. Photo by Laura Wenus

Of course the main attraction for children was amusement. A rock climbing wall set up by Rec and Park was wildly popular, as were the horses brought in by the police’s mounted division, who patiently allowed kids to ogle and pet them. Crafts and face painting drew children and the occasional parent to the Mission Neighborhood Centers’ tables, where fundraising and need assessment were mixed in with candy bar sales and trivia competitions.

Kids (and one parent) decorate photo frames at the Mission Neighborhood Centers’ table. Photo by Laura Wenus

“It’s good for the kids, they have the opportunity to learn lots of things here,” said Justino Romero, who was exploring the fair with his 7-year-old daugher Naomi. She, too, was drawn to the horses, though she was a little disappointed that she couldn’t ride them. Nonetheless, she found plenty to do. 

“Kids are kids,” Romero said. “Nationality doesn’t matter [here], kids just want to have fun.”

Note: NERT also provides Spanish language trainings not listed under the link above. They take place Tuesdays, on May 12, 19, 26 and June 2 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at St Charles Borromeo church at 713 South Van Ness Avenue. To register, call Erica Arteseros at (415) 558-3459. // NERT también tiene clases para la preparación ante desastres y emergencias en español. Hay clases los Martes el 12, 19, y 26 de Mayo y el 2 de Junio desde las 6:00 a las 9:00 p.m. en la Iglesia St. Charles Borromeo, 713 South Van Ness Avenue. Para registrarse, llame a Erica Arteseros, (415) 558-3459

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