Smiles born of youthful innocence flash across the faces of Claudia Brinkley and McKenna Kain as the best friends tumble down a slide at Franklin Park, a central city park near their Fond du Lac homes.
Their grips on the twisting, plastic slide barely miss a series of deep cuts on the underside of the playground centerpiece.
The cuts are the only visible reminders of a day back in June when another visit to the park turned from innocent to ugly for the 9-year-old St. Mary’s Springs Academy students.
The girls’ Catholic faith and education would play a role in helping the best friends, as well as the larger Fond du Lac community, erase the ugly and restore the innocence for park visitors.
The June visit to Franklin Park began as a trip, with one parent leading the way, to the nearby municipal swimming pool.
“We were going to go swimming but there were swimming lessons going on, so we went to the park instead,” Claudia said. “We were just running around under the play set when we saw these bad words. Some people wrote the bad words with ink markers and some were carved in the slide.”
As the girls looked further they found more obscene graffiti on adjoining playground equipment.
“It was so disappointing. We (Claudia and McKenna) don’t like people writing bad words so younger kids can see them. In our school we learn to respect other people and their property,” Claudia said.
The community needed to know what was happening in the park, the girls decided, and they were ready to do whatever was necessary to get the word out, McKenna said.
“We think it’s bad that people would do that (graffiti) where kids can see it. It’s really sad. So we both decided we would be kind of like “swear police,’” McKenna said.
But where could two girls, barely out of third grade, turn to help their community?
“Claudia thought we should tell the governor,” McKenna said.
With parental encouragement the girls decided on a more immediate solution – writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper.
“We decided we would write a letter to tell people what was going on and urge people to help in stopping it,” Claudia said. “We didn’t know the people who did all the graffiti, but we thought putting it in the newspaper would make people notice and try to make a change.”
The girls turned to a recently completed school assignment on how to write a letter.
The girls’ third-grade, and now their fourth-grade teacher at St. Mary’s Springs, Jill Staerzl, said the school’s language arts program teaches students the basics of writing a letter – the greeting, body and closing – to not only say hello to a friend, but to communicate news and information.
“Claudia and McKenna took their letter-writing skills and applied them to the real world,” Staerzl said. “They took what they learned, applied it to a real-life situation where they saw a problem and took action to be proactive. Instead of just walking away from the situation, they said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this. It’s not right.’ They used their letter writing skills to ask the city if it was aware there was inappropriate writing at the playground and if the graffiti could be removed.”
Staerzl said not only did the two girls apply their letter writing skills, but turned to the morals and values of their Catholic school teaching to cope with the situation.
“We try to integrate our Catholic beliefs and values in all the classes here at St. Mary’s Springs — from language arts to science and social studies,” Staerzl said. “Religion is not something separate from life. It becomes part of who we are and what we do.”
Barb Kain, McKenna’s mother, said St. Mary’s Springs “does a good job of raising awareness of students beyond the academics.”
Staerzl said a recent assignment, coinciding with the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, involved students writing letters about people they perceived as heroes.
“We talked about the heroes of Sept. 11 – the firefighters, police, nurses and doctors. I let the kids come up with their own heroes. So we brainstormed and some asked, ‘Can I write a letter to God?’ I said, ‘Of course you can write letters to God,’” Staerzl said.
Staerzl said letter writing is an important skill to communicate, particularly in view of the new evangelization.
“Writing skills can be used to help bring people who have lost their faith back into the church and get them excited again about their faith,” Staerzl said. “Kids can be incorporated into church bulletins for kids. The adult language in church bulletins sometimes gets lost on kids.”
Sarah Brinkley, Claudia’s mother, said her daughter’s Catholic education reinforces values taught at home and that their faith reaches beyond simply sitting in church for one hour a week.
“God created the whole world and we have a responsibility to take care of it,” Sarah Brinkley said.
For Claudia and McKenna, their letter-writing skills presented an alternative to just walking away from a bad situation, Staerzl said.
“It’s great they felt they could do something about it,” she said.
Shortly after the newspaper, The (Fond du Lac) Reporter, published their letter, the graffiti, except from some cuts made in plastic parts, disappeared from the playground equipment at Franklin Park.
“We very much appreciated knowing about the graffiti,” said Steve Kees, operations manager for the Fond du Lac Department of Public Works, noting it can be a challenge keeping up with all the responsibilities of taking care of the city’s parks. “What happens sometimes is people just see graffiti, grumble about it and walk away.”
McKenna said she was really happy about the publicity garnered by the letter to the editor and a front-page photo of the girls.
“We were just fourth graders who didn’t otherwise get noticed much. My brother, John, said a picture on the front page and a story wouldn’t help at all. I told him ‘John, you were wrong,’” McKenna said.
McKenna said she also noticed a large ghost spray-painted on the side of a privately-owned large building was recently painted over because, she hopes, of the girls’ letter to the editor.
The crime fighting and letter writing careers of the Swear Police will not end “any time soon,” McKenna said.
“We will continue to be on the lookout for anything and try to make a difference,” she said.