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Bill Clinton makes stop in Rockaway Park West

By Joe Anuta

A former president of the United States and hundreds of volunteers from the Clinton Global Initiative descended on the Rockaways Sunday to help dig out an unlucky park that has fallen victim to calamity twice since opening earlier this year.

Former President Bill Clinton strolled around the damaged boardwalk in Far Rockaway, where the surge from Superstorm Sandy bulldozed sand inland, covering the boardwalk area and practically burying Rockaway Park West, and shook hands with the volunteers.

“Thank you for the work you are doing,” Clinton told several people as he walked through the site.

Many volunteers surrounded him for group photos.

Claire Weisz is a founding partner at WXY Architecture, which worked on portions of the park, and she was astounded by how much sand the storm had dumped on the play area.

“When I saw pictures, I couldn’t believe the amount of effort that would be involved. This is a huge amount of sand to move. It’s like a beach,” she said.

Weisz said she was glad to see her designs slowly be unearthed like an archeological dig.

“It’s just gratifying that this can be cleaned up,” she said.

It has been a rocky road getting the play area opened.

After advocating for a park in the area for at least a decade, resident and community leaders thought they were finally getting their wish in the spring.

The park was nearly ready to open March 20, when a vandal somehow hijacked a large construction vehicle nearby and rammed through a chain link fence, smashing much of the children’s play equipment.

The damage totaled about $100,000 and police eventually arrested Allan Swafford, 17, and charged him with the crime, according to ABC News.

It took months for the city Parks Department and contractors to replace the damaged equipment, but Aug. 6 the mayor and community leaders again gathered to finally cut the ribbon on the play area.

The park stayed open for three months until calamity befell it once again.

Superstorm Sandy piled about 18 inches of sand in the play area, closing the facility a second time. Many of the volunteers cited the park’s plight as the reason why they decided to come down.

“I was surprised, given the story,” said Lilian Ajayi, who runs a Manhattan nonprofit called Global Connection for Woman. “They just built this park.”

Ajayi’s nonprofit is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, which acts like an umbrella organization, calling its members to action. Ajayi brought a team with her to help dig out the slides and monkey bars that had become inundated with sand.

Justin Donovan, from Maspeth, had an important connection that made him want to make the trek down to help out.

Donovan, as a 12-year-old, could not imagine what he would do if his park was partially buried in sand, since he uses it to play basketball when he needs to get out of the house.

“I’d be upset,” he said. “There is not other playground in the neighborhood.”

Donovan also got to spend some quality time with this grandfather, Pete, who not only drove his son down in a large tour bus, but brought more than 30 other people with him.

And while many of the other bus drivers bided their time inside their vehicles, Pete Donovan was out heaving sand into bucks and hauling away sections of spongy flooring that lined the playground — all with a broken foot encased in a black walking cast.

“This is where I grew up as a little kid,” he said with a shrug. “And I had an opportunity to work with my grandson.”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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