On a clear and brisk morning, more than 300 volunteers helped transform an underutilized parcel of land into a vibrant fitness park and recreation area at Sunshine Acres Children’s Home in Mesa.

For the second straight year, a record number of volunteers participated in Valley Partnership’s 29th Annual Community Project. In addition, a total of 89 corporate sponsors contributed to this year’s event as more than $200,000 was raised. Thirty-five contractors worked onsite for weeks to prepare prior to event day.

Cheryl Lombard, president and CEO of Valley Partnership, thanked everyone for the hard work that went into the event. Board Chair Molly Ryan Carson of Ryan Companies US thanked the corporate sponsors, and Dena Jones of Fidelity National Title served as master of ceremonies.

Valley Partnership
“Big Red,” the mascot of the Arizona Cardinals, was on hand to help generate excitement – and pose for photos with the volunteers and children as well. (Photo by Taylor Cole)

“This is what Valley Partnership is about, giving back to the community,” Lombard said. “It’s about how we help the charity, and it’s usually kids. It’s just been a great partnership with whomever we select. It is our core. We want to do what we’re good at, and our members are good at building stuff.”

Volunteers gathered as Mesa Mayor John Giles and Councilmember David Luna thanked Valley Partnership, and talked about the importance of Sunshine Acres and the surrounding community. Even “Big Red,” the mascot of the Arizona Cardinals, was on hand to help generate excitement – and pose for photos with the volunteers and children as well.

“Today was the culmination of a lot of hard work and planning,” said community project Co-Chair Kim Kleski of Olsson Associates. “It’s heartwarming to see so many people come together and build a park that will forever help the children of Sunshine Acres and also serve as a legacy to Valley Partnership’s commitment to support community.”

Utilizing the site plan designed by Tom Durant of Anderson Baron, volunteers took to the sprawling property to lay sod, assemble and paint benches, and spread decomposed granite around the grounds. The intent of the project was to bring in elements that Sunshine Acres didn’t already have for the children including fitness stations, recreation areas and games.

The design process began in July. Over the next months leading up to the event, Valley Partnership raised funds at its Friday morning breakfast and at a happy hour mixer.

“Once we selected Sunshine Acres, we met with them to better establish the need and create design concept,” said Co-Chair Aaron Parenica of Stantec. “We also immediately started talking to the membership, soliciting donations and lining up the contractors.”

Parenica said Sunshine Acres stood out in the selection process because of its unique business model and the type of work that they do.

“The fact that they don’t take government funding, they rely on the community to support them, that was unique,” Parenica said. “The number of kids they help, it’s just amazing. The project that they had in mind was a very good fit. That’s what made them stand out.”

Sunshine Acres has helped to house and protect more than 1,900 children since it began operations in 1954. Its mission is to provide wholesome homes for children that have been rescued from abusive situations or family members that are incapable of providing for them.

When completed, the park will include seven workout machines, a large grassy area, benches and ramadas, and a “gaga ball” court. By the afternoon, the children of Sunshine Acres were playing gaga ball (a version of dodge ball) and enjoying the fitness stations, ramada, and barbeque grills.

Jon Markwell, facilities director at Sunshine Acres, said fitness was a primary motivation behind the plans for the park because it is important that the kids can exercise freely.

“It’s so important, this is why we went toward a ‘fitness’ program, the activities with the kids, it’s so important to keep them moving,” Markwell said. “A lot of people like to stay home and play video games, but this way, they can go and work out on their own.”

Markwell’s wife Shara said Sunshine Acres couldn’t do it without the community, and those involved with the organization are grateful for the volunteers.

“It means the world to Sunshine Acres to have Valley Partnership out here doing this,” Shara said. “It was an honor that we were selected out of all the many organizations that are out there, that we were chosen to have this partnership.

“This is not a park for us, this is something long-term. This is more than building a park, this is building a community and a relationship that’s going to last for a very long time,” she said.

One of Valley Partnership’s cornerstones is community service. Each year, it selects a non-profit organization that can benefit from the skills, efforts and supplies provided by its partners to renovate and enhance facilities for children and those in need. Valley Partnership has now contributed more than $4.2 million to the community through these projects.