Toronto community bands together to rebuild park destroyed by fire

For families in Toronto's High Park area, the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground meant far more than just a jungle-gym and a series of slides.

Even from the time it was first built in 1998, the park has been a community affair. As The Globe and Mail notes, more than 3,000 volunteers signed up to put the playground together, turning it into a full-fledged local event.

"It was very interesting how people would sign up for a four-hour shift and they'd get addicted and wouldn't go home," Robin Sorys, the project's volunteer co-ordinator, told the paper. "People ended up taking time off work."

So when police announced that arson was a suspected cause of the fire that gutted the park on Saturday morning, people were quick to take action, even setting up a Facebook page to solicit donations toward rebuilding their beloved playground.

While the final tab on damage remains to be tallied, Canadian Tire has already pledged $50,000 to the cause. Dozens of residents have also contacted Parkdale-High Park city councillor Sarah Doucette and asking how they can contribute.

"I could have a team in there tomorrow to rebuild if we were allowed," Doucette told The Globe.

One of those team members eager to get started is Keith Denning, a volunteer who put sweat and muscle into the playground's construction 14 years ago.

Though his children are now grown up, Denning told the paper he was motivated both by principle and a sense of community to help restore the park.

"It's a great community-building thing to rebuild it and honestly, you cannot let that kind of thing win out," he said.

Volunteers like Denning are the reason the playground's original price tag ran at half its actual cost. Thanks to free labour and donated materials, the total came in at $250,000 instead of the $500,000 it should have racked up.

To those who have never visited the park, $250,000 may seem like a high number, but the playground design — inspired by park namesake and community activist Jamie Bell — involved far more than a set of swings.

At a time when most new play structures were put together with plastic and metal, the blueprint used wood to create a medieval fairy tale theme, with mock castles, towers and colourful accents.

Unfortunately, what made the park unique also left it vulnerable. Reports say the playground was engulfed in flames at 3 a.m. on Saturday, aided, no doubt, by its flammable materials.

But Doucette echoed community sentiment when she relayed a message to the public. "We're not going to let some thugs burn down our playground," she told the Toronto Star.