When Payson Elementary School teachers Roger Rohrbach and Joanne Doyle saw a weed-infested piece of land between the school and playground a few years ago, they had an idea.
"It started as a hands-off, keep-the-kids-out area," Rohrbach said. "It was just a blank space of weeds -- a wasted space. We said, ‘If we don't do something, they're going to move in a mobile (classroom unit)."
What Rohrbach, a fourth-grade teacher, and Doyle, who teaches third grade, came up with for the 4,000-square-foot parcel was a park -- but not just any kind of park. Panther Park Environmental Study Area is an interactive facility where students learn about living wisely in our climate and ecosystem.
The brainstorm came to them in 1998, and to get things going Rohrbach applied for and received a $5,000 Heritage Fund grant. This year, the school received a second Heritage Fund grant for $10,000, which, with a whole lot of help from their friends, allowed them to complete the park.
"The people of Payson saw what we were doing and wanted to help," Rohrbach said. "They gave of themselves -- their time, materials and labor. They did it because they saw the kids doing something worthwhile."
With most of the labor and many of the materials donated, Rohrbach said he was able to make the grant money go a lot further than it otherwise would have.
People and businesses that played a big role at the beginning included Roy Haught Excavating and Stan's Trucking, which donated and delivered "many a load" of sand, topsoil and granite.
The Arizona Department of Transportation even got into the act.
"They just happened to be dynamiting the very boulders that we needed on Highway 260," Rohrbach said. "They delivered."
Plant Fair Nursery matched every dollar spent on plants, a donation that came to $840, and owner Glen McCombs provided the students with expertise on how to pick appropriate plants for Payson's elevation.
Ace Hardware, Foxworth-Galbraith, Yardworks, Tree Pro, TAG Grading, Payson Fence, Payson Concrete & Materials, The Rock Yard, and Arizona Public Service also were major donors of materials and labor.
When town Public Works Director Buzz Walker heard about the water conservation measures built into the park's design (virtually every night from his son Patrick) he asked what the town could do to help. The result -- a donation of three picnic tables and three park benches.
Finally, FFA students from Payson High School got into the act.
"Wendell Stevens and the FFA classes helped us run a ‘Ditch-Witch' and put some heavy muscle behind a pick for our drip system trenches," Rohrbach said. "The fourth-graders and the high schoolers enjoyed their time together."
When the second grant came through earlier this year, another group of businesses donated time and materials to finish the park. Steve Iverson of Iverson Homes spearheaded the effort.
"Steve had said, ‘Whatever I can do to help ... , '" Rohrbach said. "(PES Principal) Roy (Sandoval) and I snagged him and said, ‘How serious are you?'"
Iverson assigned his foreman, Chris Hansen, to coordinate the effort.
"He was the one who made it happen at the direction of Steve," Rohrbach said. "He gathered all the subs and made the whole thing a success for us."
In addition to many of the same companies that participated in the first phase, those involved included Kasson Homes, Captain Morgan's Concrete, Mark's Masonry, MDC Roofing, DA Dailey Construction, Chuck Benkert Quality Painting, and electrician Wayne Tuer. The town again contributed, agreeing to waive all permit fees.
PES students participated in the entire process.
"The fourth-graders and I planned, weeded, dug trenches, put in a drip system, landscaped and stuck the plants in the ground," Rohrbach said. "We spread Arizona wildflower seeds, along with over 80 plants, trees and shrubs."
While Panther Park will always be a work in progress, the major elements are now in place, including meandering walkways through areas of like flora --uch as cactus varieties and Arizona native specie). In one corner, students have planted a vegetable and flower garden, and there also are areas where they make their own compost and grow their own worms.
Another area called the Learning Center features the donated picnic tables under a large Ramada. The park even has a fairly sophisticated weather station, which allows students to give daily weather reports over the school's public address system.
PES fourth-graders are the park's official caretakers, but all the students benefit from the lessons that it offers.
"We have studied conservation measures, including erosion prevention and dam building," Rohrbach said. "It has been a life skill learning experience, and it will be here for generations to come."
In the process of taking the project from a weed-infested eyesore to a beautiful park, Rohrbach has learned a lesson himself -- about what a caring community he lives in, and about how much can be accomplished when people work together.
"This story is not about me or my students," he said. "It's about a little town with a big heart. I am not referring to a handout. I am talking about a gift from the heart, about going the extra mile for something they believe in -- the future of Payson and our young people."
Another advantage of the park is that if offers a bit of serenity for PES students, Rohrbach said, a place to go and escape life's complexities.
As Nichole Ploughe, one of the students who worked on the park put it, "It's a place where you can sit and listen to birds, walk or eat lunch."