Kids are heading back to school Thursday, and for many that will mean the end of long weekdays spent playing in city parks. GPB’s Emily Jones visited Hull Park in Savannah’s Chatham Crescent neighborhood to find out what keeps kids coming back summer after summer. There, one woman has been the heart of the park for more than four decades.
Hull Park buzzes with activity on summer weekdays. Kids play board games, make crafts, splash around in the water fountain. It’s a lot to take in -- but the leader of this controlled chaos says her job is simple.
"I mainly love the children and the mothers," says Joan Quarterman, one of the City of Savannah recreation leaders who help keep kids busy in parks around town. She’s been in Hull Park for 43 years. During that time, she’s seen the park evolve.
"They put wood in at that point," she says of renovations in the 1980s, "then they took the wood out about ten years ago and they put the equipment, this other in."
She’s also watched neighborhood kids grow up and come back with their own families.
Ericka Lawrence Bell is playing a game with her son Dwayne. Quarterman calls it “caram board” and says it’s a perennial favorite. It’s like a miniature game of pool, on what looks like a checkerboard with pockets in the corners. Dwayne is playing well today -- in fact, he's won.
Bell grew up in Savannah and spent a lot of time in city parks as a kid. She came to Hull Park as a teenager and says Quarterman was here then. And the games in the park are still more or less as she remembers.
"I’ve been playing Connect Four," she recalls. "We was playing UNO, we always made beads, you know the little bracelets, necklaces, with our names."
Quarterman says the kids still love making bead jewelry.
"They always ask me, have you got beads?" she says. "And so I’ll, this morning I looked because I’m kinda running out, but I went in my garage and I said, oh well, I got a lot more beads. So we got the beads out this morning."
There’s more to Quarterman’s job than doling out love and craft supplies. She also helps distribute meals from the City of Savannah’s federally-funded free summer lunch program. While the park’s lunch supervisor counts out the lunches, Quarterman moves down the line of kids that’s quickly forming under the park pavilion, doling out hand sanitizer.
It varies from day to day, but about 45-50 kids eat lunch here in the summer.
"That’s a very good thing," she says. "Most children that come to this park, they don’t really need a lunch. But they’re entitled to a lunch. And I look, we look forward to them coming. Like James, he comes every day, and if we don’t have any left it makes me really upset."
"Miss Joan’s a wonderful lady," says Jason Mikell, James's brother. "She feeds us, shoot."
As Quarterman said, they’re here every day. "It’s good fun, it’s something to do over the summer instead of just staying home, they feed you, so that’s a plus," Mikell says. "Miss Joan’s great, what they do here is great, and I like it."
Quarterman says at its heart, her job is about connecting with kids like Jason and his brothers, one by one.
"To me, if you can touch one child, you’ve done good in your life," she says.
And it’s not always a matter of her helping the kids. She says the park has saved her life.
"My husband died six years ago, and it’s just been awful," she explains, "but I come out here -- that’s what I was telling some of the people -- I come out here, and they love me and I love them, and it makes you -- you wonder what else you would do if you didn’t come out here. Every year I think, ‘How long they gonna let me work?’ I’m getting old."
Even as she gets older, Quarterman says she has no plans to retire. "I’m almost 77," she says. "I’ll work as long as they let me. As long as they let me come, I’ll be here."
Emily Jones, GPB News, Savannah.