Willie Heggins at Bellevue Apartment playground

PULLMAN — Bees nested in it, a couple of boards were missing, and the slide was dangerously high off the ground. Still, the old wooden playground equipment was all that kids in the Bellevue Apartments had until this summer.

Now, they giggle and glide on a safe plastic playground of bright primary colors, thanks to 13 Washington State University students and Willie J. Heggins, an assistant professor in the College of Education. Their effort captures the spirit of the WSU minor in leadership studies — which, under Heggins’ direction, emphasizes civic involvement.

Each year, students in his Leadership and Service class (EDAD 440) get involved in worthy causes, usually individually or in small groups.  But the spring 2007 class took a different approach when the classmates heard about the need for new play equipment at Bellevue, an apartment complex for low- and moderate-income families. They decided to work as a team to tackle the big project, well aware that they might have to hand it over to the next class.

“As much as an optimist as I am, I didn’t think we’d be able to raise the money and get the work done in one semester,” said Heggins.

Student Sophia LaVelle credits the positive attitude of her classmates. Their passion for the project was stoked by their engagement with the community, she said. She recalled a barbecue party where the students and apartment residents got acquainted. “It was wonderful to see how many kids and parents showed up to support us. It makes things more real when you actually interact with the people that you are helping out.”

LaVelle is majoring in professional development.  Her classmates included juniors and seniors studying such diverse fields as mechanical engineering, history and sports management. Together, they developed a business plan for the project, investigated fund-raising strategies, researched equipment costs, and met with businesses and philanthropic organizations.

Joel Brown, a communications major, said he used “every ounce” of his production skill while serving as technical adviser on the project’s promotional video.  Showing the finished DVD to community leaders at a Rotary Club luncheon was a highlight of his time at WSU, he said. 

Among the students who spoke in the video was Alex Haight, a broadcast major who said: “There have been so many times the community has helped the students of WSU. This is a way to return the favor.”

The message was persuasive. The students raised $14,000 in cash and materials not only from the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs and businesses, but also from individuals, including Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson

To the disappointment of the students, the playground equipment didn’t arrive until after the semester ended and they had left Pullman for the summer.  So Heggins, helped by community volunteers, contributed his time and sweat to building the Bellevue playground. When it was finally ready for action, about 25 kids were standing by, ready to pounce and play.

“They love it,” said property manager Shannon Gaines. “They just go nuts.”

Brown, who has taken two of Heggins’ courses, believes that project was successful because the professor has a knack for bringing out the best in his students.  “With this class I feel that I learned that a lot of great things can happen if there is a will and a drive to make it happen,” he said. “I’m already starting to plan my own independent projects for the fall to work towards helping out the Pullman community.”