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We catch up with BCAAs first-ever $100,000 Play Here winners.

In July, after over 500 nominations and 300,000 public votes, BCAA declared that Lillooet REC Centre and Victorias Torquay Elementary would each receive a $100,000 play space transformation as winners in the first-ever BCAA Play Here initiative.

As ground breaks on both play projects, we talked to the two communities about their win.

Big plans brewing in little Lillooet.

The town of about 2,300 nestled at the feet of Mounts Brew and McLean along the Fraser River is about to make a big splash on Main Street with a desperately needed playground.

Launched in April, BCAA Play Here asked British Columbians to nominate an existing or potential play space deserving of some serious sprucing up. Its part of BCAAs mandate to protect kids throughout the province and Lillooet quickly decided to throw its hat in the ring.

Lillooets Community Literacy Outreach Coordinator, Toby Mueller, and the other members of the towns early childhood education community, know play spaces are essential to a young childs ability to reach their potential. More than just a place to kick a ball around, climb, swing and slide, they introduce invaluable social skills and gross motor skills that pave the way for more advanced cognitive development, while promoting active lifestyles and stronger connections to the outdoors.

In 2013, a local survey showed 90% of respondents wanted a playground in Lillooets town centre. The park area next to the towns recreation complex was a perfect site but resources are scarce and grants have been hard to come by. So Mueller could have been knocked over by a feather when she heard Lillooet was a BCAA Play Here finalist, along with Vancouvers General Brock Elementary, Burnabys Windsor Elementary, Crawford Bay Community Park and, eventual fellow winner, Torquay Elementary School in Victoria.

It all came down to a public vote, and the Lillooet community rose to the challenge. As soon as the community found out we were a finalist, there were local people standing outside the grocery store handing out flyers they made themselves, she said. Regional support also boosted the towns score as the Minor Hockey Association spread the word through teams that visited for tournaments and regular season games.

In a community of 2,300, they were able to rally together over 130,000 votes online. Lillooets win is a triumph for community passion and, as work starts on an incredible new play space, Toby Mueller sums it up by saying: Everyone is so happy here.

Leading the way on the Island

Meanwhile, Jasmine Haere and the other members of the PAC at Torquay Elementary School in Victoria were also campaigning hard for public votes. There was passion and we were determined, Haere said. The hardest part was getting people to understand they had to vote every day for us to win. It was the toughest job Ive ever had for about a month. Parents and students canvassed the neighbourhood, the business community hopped on board and the newspaper and radio stations took notice.

During the public vote, Lillooet and Victoria were neck and neck and swapped the lead several times. The crazy thing is whether we were winning or losing to Lillooet, it was very emotional because there had to be a loser, she recalled. Were all doing it for the kids. At times when we were winning, we started figuring out ways we could get Lillooet a playground too – we were even going to start a crowd-funding page.

Shawn Pettipas, BCAAs Community Manager explains what happened next. We were amazed by the support for all five finalists, and the final vote between Lillooet and Victoria was very close. To make the biggest possible impact for kids in these communities, we decided to declare two $100,000 play space winners and commit $20,000 to support play projects in the three other communities.

Jasmine says everyone felt an intense mix of relief and euphoria when they learned both Lillooet and Victoria were $100,000 BCAA Play Here winners. Everyone had so much emotion, there were so many tears, she said. It wasnt just happiness for ourselves, it was happiness that no one was going to lose. We could be free and stop worrying about how to make everybody win.

David Loveridge, Facilities Director for School District #61 in Greater Victoria, wants the playground about to be built at Torquay to put the neighbourhood of Gordon Head on the map.

Were trying to do stuff in Victoria thats never been done before, he said. Weve had meetings with BCAA and the local provider and theyre coming up with some designs – $100,000 goes a long way towards a playground.

Loveridge credits the community at large for making it happen, and community volunteers will help install the playground, allowing them to stretch the prize as far as possible. Kudos to them, he said. This has really brought the community together.

With the overwhelming success of the first-ever BCAA Play Here initiative, the blueprints to make an even bigger impact next year are already being drawn up. Visit bcaaplayhere.com to register for news about next years program, and to learn more about the projects at Lillooet and Victoria.