How one enterprising couple is building a play area for the whole neighborhood to enjoy

By Bonnie Eslinger

Inspired by their daughter Maya, Eli and Brent Wagner began fundraising two years ago
Photo by Mia Duncans

Once just the seed of an idea, a new park has taken root in Westchester.

A few years ago, Eli and Brent Wagner were strolling with their newborn daughter and realized there wasn’t a park in their immediate North Kentwood neighborhood where she’d someday be able to play.

The young couple, married in 2012, raised $20,000 for play equipment and found a location they could open up to the community: a small yard facing West 80th Place behind the Westchester Family YMCA. But after a whole year of planning, the Wagners learned that the site wasn’t workable.

Unlike the old adage, ‘when one door closes, another one opens,’ the Wagners weren’t willing to wait for providence. They began knocking on doors, and soon received a warm welcome at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church.

“There was this big grass lawn. So we just approached them out of the blue and said, ‘Hey, we have this chunk of money from the community. Please let us build a park that not only church members can use but make it open to the entire community,’” Eli Wagner recalled. “They were very excited about it. They’ve been a dream to work with.”

Earlier this month, community members celebrated the grand opening of the pocket park, which includes a playground with a slide, platform and climbing structure. There is also a frog spring rider. The first round of funding paid for an ADA ramp, flooring, and a fence. Kentwood residents, their children, and local nannies quickly found it.

“I drive by there on my way to work and the park is full,” said Eli Wagner, an attorney. “There was clearly a need.”

But there’s room to grow, the Wagners say, so they’re reviving a pasta-sauce competition event they successfully pulled together in 2016 as a fundraiser for the park’s first phase. With additional money, they can add seating, a picnic table, signage, landscaping and additional playground elements, Wagner said. The goal this go-around is $5,000, but she said they’d love to surpass that amount.

The “Sauce Angeles” event will be held at the Westchester Family YMCA, the prior planned site for the park.

Eli Wagner said the deal they had with the YMCA “crumbled,” but didn’t want to make much of that undoing. Their site was a lot more sloped than expected, which significantly upped the construction costs, the couple said. After a year of discussions with the YMCA leadership, everyone decided it would be best to find a new location.

Westchester Family YMCA Executive Director John Loussararian said the organization was disappointed when it didn’t pencil out financially.

“After … evaluating what we would need to do to prepare the site for the playground, and reviewing the construction bids received, we realized the cost of site preparation on our campus was going to far exceed the cost of the playground apparatus itself,” Loussararian wrote in an email to The Argonaut. “As a result, we assessed that it wouldn’t be the best use of our donor’s contributions to install the playground on the Y campus.”

From beginning planning stages to playtime, getting the park built in the front yard of Holy Nativity took about four months, Eli Wagner said.

Reverend Peter Rood said the couple’s vision for a public park aligned with Holy Nativity’s community spirit.

“They literally walked up and knocked at the door and the conversation began,” Rood said. “It really didn’t take long for us and the board and the community here to embrace the idea and the need for a pocket park here. It seemed like a natural and proper addition.”

The Sauce Angeles 2018 fundraiser happens at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at the Westchester Family YMCA, 8015 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Westchester (in the Annex building near the rear parking lot). Advance tickets are $45 through Feb. 9 at