“It was a natural thing,” said Ron Sandstorm on Thursday of the $10,000 check the Hays Optimist Club donated to Arc of the Central Plains.

The Optimist money is going to help build a $1.7 million playground complex at existing Seven Hills Park and will be accessible to children and adults with disabilities.

But Sandstorm, an Optimist member since 1988, said Thursday’s donation made sense for the club. Its members have donated their labor and money to city parks since the club’s founding in Hays in the late 1960s.

One of those parks is Seven Hills at 33rd and Hillcrest.

“Twenty-six years ago our organization provided the funding matched by the city of Hays to construct the playground,” said Ken Beran, speaking at the noon lunch meeting of the club at Whiskey Creek, 3203 Vine St.

“In addition to providing part of the capital, we also donated a substantial amount of members’ time to build the shelter house, assemble playground equipment, and also to install the equipment in the park,” Beran said.

The funds for Thursday’s Arc check came from money set aside over the years from the Optimists’ annual Christmas tree sales.

“We knew that at one time there would be a need to make additional improvements at the Seven Hills site and we’re excited to see what’s happening at that site, for the youth of Hays and the surrounding area,” Beran said.

Arc board member Sarah Meitner said the $10,000 gift is one of the larger ones they’ve received, and the staff is touched to have the Optimists' blessing to improve the park. The accessible complex continues the Optimists’ mission to serve kids in town, she said, “but especially those who don’t otherwise have a safe place to play.”

Donations right now total $350,000 in cash, plus an in-kind donation of about $50,000 for installation of the turf and another in-kind offer for excavation of the site, Meitner said. That pushes the total to about $420,000, she said. More than 250 individuals and 85 businesses have donated so far.

The hope is to have all donations and donation pledges logged before the end of the month, and to hit $500,000. At that time Arc board members can formally apply for grant funding from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation in Logan.

“We’re hoping when we get to Hansen that it will be enough,” Meitner said, “so keep us in your prayers.”

The board’s hope is to order the playground materials during July, with ceremonial groundbreaking the end of summer.

“Cross your fingers and toes,” Meitner said. “We’ve been in discussions with Hansen, so we are hopeful that it’ll be enough for them, but they may also say, ‘Let’s do it in phases.’ ”

Work continues with the designers, including the addition of a new piece of equipment that came out this year.

“It’s a really cool accessible merry-go-round,” she said.

As far as local providers for the work, there’s room for in-kind services from subcontractors in town, working with the turn-key builder, Athco Inc., of Lenexa, for example for the family restroom, splash pad plumbing, concrete work, fencing or a parking lot for buses. 

“There’s only a couple things that they would bring their own people in for,” said Brent Kaiser, activities director for The Arc. “Everything else I think they would try to find somebody here local to fill those roles.”

Beran said the Optimist members this past year spent 244 hours on their projects, including selling Christmas trees and raffle tickets, both of which fund youth activities.

“We use the proceeds of those two projects to fund over 21 different projects in the Hays community,” he said.

That includes providing Merriam-Webster dictionaries in October to every sixth-grader in Ellis County, which the Optimists have done for 34 years, said Gary Wentling, program chairman. So far they’ve given out 11,998, Wentling said.

This year, instead of dictionaries, Hays Middle School requested cash and used it to buy books in a new section of the school’s library where students can sit and read, he said.

“They started a reading program and we made a money contribution to buy books,” he said. “They want to get them away from the computer a little bit, so they’re stressing reading books versus computer time.”

Besides the schools, Optimist benefactors include Boy and Girl Scouts, 4-H, Boys & Girls Clubs, city parks, an annual youth basketball competition and other programs.

“We don’t hang on to the money,” Wentling said. “We get it out there into the community.”

Donations to the Arc playground complex can be made at haysarcpark.org or by contacting Arc of the Central Plains at 600 Main or 785-628-8831.