Lynden’s 11-year-old Million Smiles Playground has far surpassed a million smiles since it was built with a picket fenced-in style on the grounds of venerable City Park.
What leads to the widest of smiles and the happiest of memories for founder Gary Vis is the sheer number of local volunteers who helped create the state-of-the-art children’s park.
“We had three people from (park specialist) Leathers and Associates (from Ithaca, N.Y.) and more than 3,000 volunteers, both adults and kids,” says Vis, director of the Lynden Chamber of Commerce and a former city council member.
“We hit our million smiles in the first two years. The Million Smiles Playground has 25 (significant) components. It was constructed in nine days in 2007,” he says, recalling how exhausted he and so many others were. “We served more than 3,600 meals to volunteers. I remember when we ran out of cookies, we put out the call and more than 600 dozen cookies were donated.”
The children’s park, which is free to use and is located at 8460 Depot Road, has all the standard swings, slides and climbing equipment, in addition to a spectacular 35-foot tree house, a rock climbing wall, a tire tunnel, access to fish and tadpole watching at nearby Fishtrap Creek and a lot more.
“We have two distinct parts of the park, which covers 25,000 square feet,” Vis says. “There is a tot lot for kids 2 to 5 years old. The other part is for 6- to 12-year-olds.”
The affable Vis did not hesitate when asked which is his favorite attraction.
“Absolutely, the tree house!” he says. “I was really adamant about having that, with fond memories of my childhood tree house in Lynden.
“It’s built on the side of a hill and can be entered from either side, so everyone has access. Parents can enjoy the tree house, too. In fact,” he says with a sly wink, “I have slid down the slide.”
Vis has always been a huge fan of the memories created by tree houses.
“There’s something extremely liberating about a tree house, about being (by yourself in some cases) in nature,” he says. “It can be so relaxing to listen to the voice of nature.”
TripAdvisor.com rates Million Smiles Park as the “No. 1 attraction among 15 things to do in Lynden.”
Parents have no problem keeping track of their kids. A covered structure at the children’s entrance allows parents to relax with a book while keeping an eye on young ones.
Vis recalls how more than 850 picket fence posts were obtained for $35 donations.
“We were really lucky to have Vander Griend Lumber located across the road from City Park,” he says, recalling childhood memories of hearing how his grandfather and great-grandfather helped establish City Park in 1922.
Not long before Million Smiles Park became a reality, Vis had heard how insurance people had become wary of risks posed by some children’s equipment that was more than 60 years old.
“I got the idea for a new children’s park on a family trip to Hawaii in 2005 (with wife and four children, none yet of high school age),” says Vis, who was then on the city council. “I asked the kids what they wanted to do (on Kauai), and they said they wanted to go back to Lydgate Park, which they had visited on our earlier trip to Hawaii. A month later, driving in Sequim, I saw a playground that was almost identical.”
Eventually, well before the volunteers emerged, Vis proposed a new children’s park to his fellow council members but was voted down 6-1.
“I still had that idea. I had noticed that Leathers divided everything by teams with coordinators of volunteers, so I began talking with local people, with personalities and skills in mind,” he says.
Long story short, the Lynden-based Mount Baker Rotary Club donated $100,000 after touring a similar park in Oak Harbor. Soon, local volunteer leaders emerged. With about $255,000 and a huge amount of sweat equity later, those million smiles began flashing by the thousands even before the children’s park was finished.