The need was glaring.
"It was like a Third-World country," Irene Perez said bluntly of the Hebron House's former outdoor play area. "The gravel was broken, there was a rusty old fence and it was just a horrible area. Kids were playing in a mud puddle."
A transformation has taken place.
Week by week since Labor Day, the homeless shelter's play area at 812 N. East Ave. has gone from a small section of cracked asphalt with a few toys to a green-filled play area that employees, clients and the community can be proud of.
"It's beautiful," said Perez, Hebron House's director of development.
She can now use this adjective to describe the area thanks to the more than 100 volunteers from local downtown churches who have donated their time over the last month.
But also because of the donation Hebron House received from New Berlin Grading Inc.
The shelter raised about $17,000 for the project which was supposed to be enough. However, when the old asphalt was pulled up to grade the entire surface because of poor drainage, the extra cost could have stalled the project.
Calling it "God's blessing," New Berlin Grading came through for Perez and the Hebron House. The company came to the site and did the work that needed to be done — which cost more than $20,000 — for free.
It's a project that was three-fourths complete as of last week. But with a new fence installed by volunteers over the weekend, the space was nearly finished.
Among those who were leading the way was Don Douglas, who has been instrumental in the play area.
Douglas, of Watertown, is the president and founder of Bridgebuilders Ministries of Wisconsin Inc., a nonprofit organization that was formed two years ago after a group went down to Joplin, Mo., to help after the tornado.
When Douglas returned home, he started a local version with members of Oakwood Church in Hartland.
Douglas' group helped install a new roof at one of Hebron House's shelters two years ago.
"He's been in love with Hebron House since and when he heard the playground needed a project manager to get the project done he was up for it," Perez said.
Douglas said the playground effort was "the biggest volunteer group we've put together."
As a former carpenter, leading this project was right up Douglas' alley, but the all-volunteer group doesn't do service projects for notoriety or money.
"It's something I love to do," Douglas said of volunteering. "It's fun having so many people come together."
The play area for children has a slide, a sandbox, monkey bars and a balance beam.
Transforming this space was necessary because of the amount of children who utilize Hebron House. This summer there were 19 to 20 children at a time this summer.
"They're stuck inside and the house gets crowded," Perez said. "It's loud and adds to the drama and crisis that these people are already in."
But she added, "the nice thing is it's not just a playground. It's a quiet area for moms with babies and then the deck is meant for quiet reflection and the exercise equipment is there for them to learn about health."
There will also be an area for Hebron guests to plant and maintain a vegetable garden next spring.
"We want to stress good nutrition, and planting provides a calming effect," Perez said. "Sometimes guests get agitated and are in a crisis when they come to us. So this will provide a nice, quiet area in the middle of chaos."
With the space coming together better than expected, Perez said the impact will be lasting.
"It's a symbol of how well we take care of guests," Perez said. "Not only their immediate physical concerns, but their emotional needs. And it's important that our neighbors are not looking at gravel and dirt. It adds to the overall aesthetic beauty of that area. It shows that we're good neighbors who take care of their property."