It started off as a serious problem for a newly rebuilt Orchard Elementary.
“We’ve got this beautiful school and no playground,” said Rich Whitney, facilities director for Billings School District 2.
Six years ago, recess at the school was a sad affair. The district had successfully passed a bond in 2004 to update the 80-year-old school, renovating the building and giving it a new wing. But the bond didn’t secure any money for a playground. The Southside school — in which 80 percent of its student body qualifies for free or reduced-priced meals — was in essence a shiny new building surrounding acres of aged, graying asphalt and empty, weedy fields.
That’s when Joe and Miriam Sample stepped in. And stepped in again. And again.
Orchard Elementary has its new playgrounds — completed over the last three years — and now has $14,600 a year to help keep it in pristine condition, thanks to the Samples.
Since they’ve gone up, the playgrounds have become the crown jewel of the neighborhood surrounding the school. Residents take a pride in the equipment that has spread to their own homes.
Caroline Arstein, who lives in a house across the street, said she noticed that her neighbors have started taking care of their own yards better and worked to make the neighborhood look a little nicer.
“People have a lot more pride now,” she said.
The playgrounds have been popular and during the school year, they seem to get plenty of use, she said. “They’ve done a real nice job.”
The yearly $14,600 the Sample Foundation recently donated will help the district keep them nice.
Whitney has a crew of eight groundskeepers responsible for 550 acres of land. He said they can keep it mowed, but there’s not a lot of time to do much else. The foundation money will allow him to hire a local company to care specifically for Orchard’s equipment and landscaping.
“Which really takes a lot of pressure off us,” he said.
The playgrounds, located on either side of the school, are equipped with surveillance cameras to help deter vandalism. But Whitney said he believes the neighbors have ended up being more of a deterrent.
“They don’t vandalize (the equipment),” he said. “They really take ownership.”
Plans for the playgrounds came about when the Samples sent a letter to Whitney in 2004 after the bond had passed. They offered to build the school a playground “as good or better” than anything already in Billings, Whitney said. He was instructed to write for a grant from the couple’s foundation requesting the money.
Not sure just how much license the letter gave him, Whitney decided to go for broke and ask for everything. He wrote a grant requesting $500,000.
It was approved. The district was able to build an elaborate playground for the school’s primary grades. But there was still an empty field on the north side of the building and the older kids still had no real playground equipment to call their own. So the Foundation gave again and the district was able to build a second playground.
Over the course of six years, between community donations, grants from the Sample Foundation and money from Joe and Miriam Sample’s own pocket, the district has received to date nearly $1.5 million.
The money has built the two state-of-the-art playgrounds, installed half a dozen basketball courts, a soccer field and planted a swath of green space with dozens of shade trees.
“I can’t say thank you enough,” Whitney said.
Joe Sample – Miriam died in 2008 – has shied away from taking any recognition for the contributions.
“They don’t want the public accolades,” Whitney said.
At one point, Joe Sample told the district he’d gotten more satisfaction from providing the playgrounds than from anything else he’d done.
Neighbor Lynette Detienne said she doesn’t know who Joe Sample is, but as she sits in her front yard and watches children play on the equipment, she enjoys the view. When her grandkids come to visit, it’s where they want to go.
“I think it’s very nice,” she said
Contact Rob Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 406-657-1231.