Union Pacific Helps Houston Nonprofit Spark Fun and Safety For All

SPARK volunteers cut the ribbon at new park in Houston | LR

SPARK Executive Director Kathleen Ownby and Principal Johnatan Guzman cut the ribbon at the Edison Middle School SPARK Park dedication, accompanied by the Edison cheer team and community members.

Only 61% of Houston, Texas, residents live within a 10-minute walk of a public park. SPARK School Parks Program, a local nonprofit, is working to change that by creating and refurbishing parks at public schools in the Houston area.

Funded by a $25,000 grant from Union Pacific’s Community Ties Giving Program, SPARK recently refurbished the Edison Middle School park, which it originally built in 2005. Today, the park serves more than 6,200 people who live within a half-mile radius and now includes new soccer goals, benches, handicap-accessible tables, and a basketball court converted into a pickleball court – a special request from students at the school.

“I think it is important that everybody knows that if a school playground has a SPARK sign, the gate should always be open after school, on weekends and holidays for the community,” said Kathleen Ownby, executive director of SPARK. “Parks provide a safe place for families and students to go after school, and they bring communities together.”

SPARK was founded in 1983 to use public school grounds to increase park space in Houston. Since its founding, the nonprofit has built or refurbished over 200 parks around Houston in 17 school districts.

“We build each park based on ideas and needs provided by the school, its students, and the community,” Ownby said. “Each SPARK park is unique. We want the park to be enjoyed and used by nearby residents after school hours and on weekends/holidays until dusk, when school is not in session.”

SPARK is currently in Phase 3 of their Park Desert Initiative, aiming to build 20 new and 20 refurbished parks in the next four years in areas where residents would have to walk more than 10 minutes to the nearest park.

The Community Ties grant helped purchase handicap-accessible tables for the SPARK park, which is encouraged at every park they build, to create safe, inclusive play areas for children of all abilities.

In 2023, Union Pacific’s Community Ties Giving Program proudly awarded nearly $5.1 million in local grants, benefiting 543 nonprofit organizations across its 23-state system. The small- and medium-sized grants support initiatives centered around the railroad’s key areas of giving: safety, workforce development, community spaces and environmental sustainability.

The application process is open April 1-May 31, 2024, and is competitive, ensuring a fair opportunity for all eligible entities. To read more about Union Pacific’s Community Ties Giving Program or apply for a grant, visit up.com/communityties.

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